Though it had a successful world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in the autumn of 2018, Charise Castro Smith's El Huracán has always been a play meant for Miami.
The moist heat. The yearly threat of hurricanes. The Cuban diaspora, with the ache of losing homeland and family. In a new country, multigenerational affection and tension under the same roof, in English and Spanish.
Using a mixture of poetically evocative language, humor, vivid theatricality, magical realism, and echoes of William Shakespeare's The Tempest, Miami native Castro Smith has constructed a deeply recognizable world in El Huracán (The Hurricane). The play's Florida premiere previews Friday, April 14, opens Saturday, April 15, and runs through Sunday, May 14, at GableStage in Coral Gables.
Getting El Huracán produced in her hometown — specifically by GableStage, one of Miami-Dade County's most celebrated theater companies — was always one of Castro Smith's goals.
Although she left Miami to earn degrees at Brown University and Yale and now lives in the Los Angeles area, where she focuses on writing for television and film, Castro Smith's personal and family roots here run deep. She attended high school at New World School of the Arts (Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney was a couple of years ahead of her) and was influenced by many productions staged by GableStage producing artistic director Joseph Adler, who passed away in 2020.
"I always intended to find a home for the play in Miami," says Castro Smith, co-author and codirector of the Oscar-winning animated Disney film Encanto. "GableStage was the theater I aspired to when I was growing up."
She previously has acted in an ambitious GableStage coproduction. In 2013-14, Castro Smith, who trained as an actor before shifting to playwriting, played Octavia and Iras in the McCraney-adapted production of Antony and Cleopatra. Directed by McCraney and set on the eve of the 1791 Haitian slave revolution in Saint-Domingue, the production was a joint effort of GableStage (which presented it at the larger Colony Theatre in Miami Beach), the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-Upon-Avon, and New York's Public Theater.
That Castro Smith's play finally landed at GableStage resulted from long-term regional theater connections.
In her second season as the theater's producing artistic director, Bari Newport was at California's Pasadena Playhouse when Miami-born Dámaso Rodríguez, who is directing El Huracán for GableStage, was serving as associate artistic director there.
"Dámaso is the real deal... He has a love of new plays and a love of reading plays, and he's also a playwright... He would send me plays and playwrights he was discovering," Newport says. "Charise made it clear to me that it was extremely important to her that this play be produced by GableStage. She was active in finding additional financial resources."
One was a contribution from producer-activist-businessman Henry Muñoz III (Funny or Die, Funny Girl on Broadway). The larger budget has allowed Newport to hire a magic consultant to teach the cast tricks specified in the script, fund two sets of costumes (one appropriate to 1992, another for 2017), and help realize the play's many complex technical elements. All in all, Newport feels producing El Huracán in GableStage's relatively small space has been more like putting on a musical.
Of Castro Smith's strengths as a playwright, she says, "I love writers who understand the genre they're writing for, who love theatricality, and who lean into what theater does best — which is express elements of the human experience through metaphor."
Rodríguez directed a production of Castro Smith's Feathers and Teeth, a wild, bloody, and darkly comic contemporary horror play inspired partly by Hamlet, at Artists Rep in 2017. But it was El Huracán, which he had read a year earlier, that continued to haunt him.
"I mentioned it to different artistic directors, but I suggested to Bari that it would really connect with Miami audiences, who would see themselves in it. I sent it to her, and she quickly said, 'We're doing it next season,'" Rodríguez recalls.
He also loves Castro Smith's writing in the six-actor, nine-character piece that incorporates magical realism, poetic moments, and memories of a matriarch living with Alzheimer's disease.
"Charise is an actor, too. She writes great characters, gives them depth and specificity," the director says. "Her work is very ambitious and boldly theatrical, with a sense of fun. She wants theater to be exciting and surprising, with a lot of emotional depth."
Castro Smith was inspired to write El Huracán, she says, by a number of things: her Cuban mother's interrupted childhood, the shocking devastation of Hurricane Andrew, her grandmother's Alzheimer's diagnosis, and a 2009 trip to Havana with her parents to bury her grandfather's ashes in the family plot. The comedy, tragedy, and romance of The Tempest, which Castro Smith describes as "Shakespeare's farewell to being an artist," plus some character names and the banished nobleman Prospero's "rough magic," also influenced her.
"My mom had a childhood in one place, and then it was fractured in the middle. I didn't visit Cuba until I was 24 when I discovered I had been missing a place I'd never been," says the playwright, who was surprised to discover that her grandfather's home in Cuba was a smaller version of the one he subsequently built in Miami. "My grandmother was diagnosed around the time I left for college. It took a toll on the family. It was overwhelming, sad, confusing, funny, and incredibly tragic."
Valeria's husband Alonso (James Puig), her long-ago magician's assistant, has vanished, unable to bear watching his wife's suffering and deterioration. The family's hot neighbor Fernando (Gabriell Salgado) makes an appearance that will have lasting repercussions. Valeria's younger sister Alicia and a neurologist (both played by Emma Garcia Seeger) also figure into a plot that intensifies as the massive hurricane approaches.
Castro Smith's story then jumps ahead 25 years, with the two parts linked by some in-plain-sight theatrical magic: As assistants help transform them, the long-estranged Ximena and Miranda become the older version of themselves.
Valeria and Alonso are present as memories no longer of this world. Miranda, absent since Hurricane Andrew, shows up with her now-grown daughter Val (Garcia Seeger), a young woman eager to understand the family she has never met. Theo (Salgado), the son of Ximena's cousin, has followed the path of so many others who left Cuba to forge a new life in Miami.
The storm this time is within the family. Letting go of old wounds, reconciling, and finding forgiveness figure powerfully into the second part of El Huracán.
The vivid beauty of Castro Smith's writing shimmers throughout the play, as in this speech by Alonso after Valeria's Alzheimer's diagnosis: "I could never forget you. Not as long as I breathe. If I tried to forget, my bones would remember. If my bones forgot, your scent would live in the tiny channels of my skin. And if my skin forgot, scenes from our life would play out over and over again on the insides of my eyelids, unbidden until the projector in my mind sputtered out and was no more."
Alonso, Puig feels, is a loving husband and father who makes one critical mistake that ruins the rest of his life. And he sees El Huracán as a love story that asks how to forgive the unforgivable.
"Some plays are entertaining. Some transform you, educate you, inspire you. I don't think you can walk into this one and then walk out the same. It provides a booster of compassion," he says, adding that having Castro Smith in the opening night audience will be "like doing Shakespeare for Shakespeare."
Salgado, a Miamian, New World School of the Arts grad, and the only other male actor in the cast, has had a succession of significant roles since beginning his professional career a year and a half ago.
They include the title character in Zoetic Stage's Frankenstein and Puig's son in the Zoetic world premiere of Hannah Benitez's Gringolandia, the Lector in the recent Nilo Cruz-directed Anna in the Tropics for Miami New Drama, the grieving grandson in Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles at Palm Beach Dramaworks, the aspiring Olympian in Red Speedo and a would-be matinee idol in the world premiere of Michael McKeever's The Code, both at the Foundry in Wilton Manors.
El Huracán marks his GableStage debut, and like Castro Smith, Rodríguez, and his fellow actors with large families in South Florida, he hopes to fill many seats during the play's run.
"My mom went to 13 performances of Frankenstein," he says, smiling.
In rehearsal, he shared stories about his grandmother, who has dementia, with his colleagues. She can still carry on a conversation, is still lucid, but Salgado says, "This is prime time for her and her memories."
The actor is also clear about the roles he and Puig play in El Huracán.
"This is not about the men. This is about the women. It's important to be the secondary amplification sometimes," he says.
Sevan, who starred opposite her husband Jonathan Nichols in the 2004 Coconut Grove Playhouse production of Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics, has dozens of credits at major New York and regional theaters as well as in film and television. She's also a successful playwright who looks at El Huracán through the lens of a performer and a writer. In the Yale world premiere, she won a Connecticut Critics Circle award for playing Valeria (opposite Nichols as Alonso); at GableStage, she'll be Ximena.
"This play grabbed me from the first time I read it. I thought I have to do this play and wondered, 'Who is this extraordinary writer?'" she says. "This is about exile, leaving home, the diaspora, trauma. Some have to lock that away. Others have to bring it with them. I'm so curious about the cost of exile. What you have to remember and what you have to forget to go forward."
Castro Smith, Sevan says, "writes with epic reverberations, going back to the Greeks and Shakespeare. It's theater as ritual and catharsis."
Having played Valeria and now Ximena ("I have walked in Mami's shoes," Sevan says), she believes that capturing stories and memories of a family's oldest members is vital.
"When an elder dies, a library burns," she says. "With gentle urgency, you should get those stories that might have been lost. And when you leave the theater, don't check your missed messages. Make a phone call to your family."
– Christine Dolen, ArtburstMiami.com
El Huracán. Friday, April 14 through Sunday, May 14, at GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119; gablestage.org. Tickets cost $45 to $75.