Melt at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables attempts to identify Miami

Michael McKeever's Melt debuted two years ago at the New Theatre in Coral Gables. I missed it. It won the Carbonell Award for Best New Play and was mounted again, with either the same or nearly the same cast in New York City, and I didn't see it then either. Now, having caught it during a two-week engagement with a mostly new cast at Actors' Playhouse, I wish I had seen it both other times too.

Because Melt is the kind of play you come back to. It is, among other things, a meditation on the generation gap, a study of aging and the fragility of memory, and a guidebook on how to get along in a world full of people whose cares and concerns are not your own. It is also a work of anthropology. Though Michael McKeever lives in Broward, his play is both a love letter to and a plea for the salvation of Miami. (Melt's alternate title is The Miamians.) It is an attempt to pin down in literature and art the soul of the place; to identify it as a nexus of individuals, cultures, and moments; to do for it what Philip Roth did for Newark or what John Cheever did for Westchester County. And Miami needs such treatment. Even for those of us who live in its orbit, the city feels like an unexplained mystery.

More to the point, Miami is full of stories untold. Through the personas of two women, two Jews, two Hispanics, two gays, and no WASPS, McKeever endeavors to tell the Magic City's untold story, or at least a version of it, and he succeeds.

The play's seven characters are connected only coincidentally. Luis (Javier Siut), an urban planner, is at war with Adelle (Lela Elam), an advocacy lawyer defending the inhabitants of a community Luis would like razed for a high-rise. His mother, Marta (Teresa Maria Rojas), happens to work at the tailor where Adelle gets her dresses hemmed. Adelle's brother, Jackson (Reiss Gaspard), is a nurse who tends to Marta when she goes to the hospital for cancer treatment. Marta, waiting for Luis to pick her up from one such treatment, shares a bench with Isaac (John Felix), father of Leo (Nicholas Richberg), who is Jackson's lover. The characters never recognize these connections: Like all city people, they live in blithe ignorance of the degree to which their lives intersect.

In pairs and on their own, the characters struggle with questions that are in no way unique to their city. Marta is going to die and her son will miss her terribly — and even though he is an educated and well-heeled man in his 30s, he still needs his mama. As he learns not a moment too early, there are questions that fiscal success has not equipped him to answer. Jackson and Leo want to adopt a baby, but Leo can't even get along with his own dad, who is, it seems, in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Jackson, along with his sister, is still struggling with his parents' legacy. What does it mean to have come from Overtown, to have grown up there, and to think of one's departure as an escape? Is it a betrayal to escape the city one's grandparents stood by and loved?

These considerations are not theoretical here. They are going concerns, and the actors know it. In their scenes together, Gaspard and Richberg, as the hopeful fathers, are inexpressibly sweet and almost as sad. They begin with confidence, the know-it-all-ness of untroubled young adulthood. Leo upbraids his father for drinking too much coffee — "You've already had three cups; that's quite enough for one day" — before yanking him out of a restaurant, and the way Richberg spits out the line turns Dad into a relic, incapable of even drinking for himself.

But there are no static characters in Melt. Even the old ones change as they near death or lose their grip on the past. As the play wends on, the faces of the younger actors seem to soften as they realize, one by one, that history cannot be discarded, that you cannot go anywhere unless you know whence you came, and that knowing such a thing is not always easy. People disappear. Stories have a tell-by date.

Under the direction of Stuart Meltzer — who paces the play slowly but not stolidly, like an August day spent drinking caipirinhas in Wynwood — several of the actors perform minor miracles. John Felix and Teresa Maria Rojas seem to carry the city's history on their shoulders as they take their deliberate steps around the stage, and their words are weighted with the knowledge that, for every thought they share, there are a hundred that will never be spoken. And Lela Elam — after picking up her role only two days before opening, when another actor fell ill — crafts a nuanced, multilayered portrait of a lady who has spent her professional life attaining a street cred she secretly believes she may never deserve.

Full disclosure: I spent the last five minutes of Melt in tears, because apart from anything else, it is a lonely finger pointing into the darkness of yesteryear and tracing the rough contours of all that's lost — to deaths and goodbyes and redevelopments and displacements. It is also an impassioned plea from a writer, a director, and seven actors to please, not forget, or lose anymore. Though the play is an exploration of Miami's unique character, you come away with the thought that, in its essential nature, this city isn't very different from any other place. Here, too, existence is a matter of birth and death, ancestors betrayed and honored, the passage of time, the loss of memory, and the desperate attempt to retrieve it before the earth swallows it up. Mostly, Melt made me reflect that these are meager things out of which to build a happy life, here or anywhere. But, here or anywhere, they have to do.

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Brandon K. Thorp