Before the show started on opening night, Richard Blanco began the festivities surrounding “Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas” like the great poet he is, reading “A Love Song for the Miracle Theatre” — a poem he was moved to write earlier that day.
Standing downstage in the Balcony Theatre, with set designer Brandon Newton’s vision of a small Maine community at the ready behind him, the Cuban American Blanco painted a vibrant portrait in words, evoking the look and spirit of a movie theater-turned-playhouse, a place he knows well from growing up in Miami.
Getting to the very essence of theater’s magical reflection of life and its transportive power, he observed that for decades, “we’ve found ourselves by forgetting ourselves…”
Blanco, the country’s fifth inaugural poet and Miami-Dade County’s poet laureate, collaborated with Miami playwright and fellow Cuban American Vanessa Garcia in writing “Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas.” After a world premiere at Maine’s Portland Stage, the play is getting a second production from Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables, where it will run through Sunday, Dec. 3.
Speaking of “Sweet Goats” in advance of its opening, Garcia observed, “This play roots from Miami. It is very much from here that the spirit of it comes.”
So true. Though the play is set in Maine, it is imbued with Cuban culture — food, music, dance, spiritual practices, historical touchstones, certain small speeches in impassioned Spanish. The opening night audience got all of it, laughing, joining in song, some commenting in a whisper (or not so quietly) to one another.
Blanco and Garcia’s story centers on Beatriz (Melissa Ann Hubicsak), a Miamian who has moved to Maine and opened the Elegua Bakery. She’s not quite a santera, she explains to her best friend Georgie (Elizabeth Price), but she is (as her uncle describes her) a daughter of the Santería deity Elegua, the trickster god of the crossroads.
Beatriz is quite the trickster herself. Estranged from her Cuban immigrant mother Marilyn (Barbara Bonilla), a woman scarred by a lifetime of loss, Beatriz sometimes phones her mom in Miami, altering her voice and pretending to represent a sweepstakes. But of course, she really just wants to hear her mother’s voice.
Having moved to Maine after the demise of her marriage to a man 20 years her senior — a son-in-law her mother scorned — Beatriz has found her people, a chosen family quite different from the Cuban bakers who first ignited her passion for making pastries.
Georgie, a woman of strong opinions, knows what she wants — and at this moment, she wants Beatriz to read the caricoles (cowrie shells) so the gods can fill her in on her future. Particularly her romantic future.
At one time, Georgie thought the quintessential Maine man Maynard (Michael Gioia) might be the one. But something happened with his ex-wife Clarice, for whom his pet cardinal is named, so Georgie now does her best to pretend Maynard doesn’t exist, even when he’s in the same room.
Blake (Conor Walton) is a gay man from Kentucky who’s married to a veterinarian (Blanco has noted that Blake is the character most like himself). His homemade goat cheese inspires Beatriz to come up with a pastelito filled with goat cheese and guava – the “sweet goats” of the title. His main activities seem to be bringing the snark when it’s needed and smoking. He knows he should quit, but does he want to? Hell, no.
Into this mix of kindness and eccentricity comes Beatriz’s Tio Eme (Rey), who has come to Maine from Miami to see if he can break through the stalemate between his sister and his niece. Both women are similarly stubborn and sometimes volatile, so things don’t exactly proceed apace. He manages to fill his time by arguing with Beatriz about family, helping her bake and flirting with the smitten Georgie.
A 90-minute exploration of life and death, home and connection, “Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas” comes off like a distant cousin to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
As you might expect, given Blanco’s contributions to the collaboration, there are moments of poetry threaded into the drama. And some of the writing by both playwrights — who wrote what isn’t specified — is heartbreakingly evocative.
Marilyn, who came to the United States on a Pedro Pan flight with her brother, tells Tio Eme how she felt when their parents were finally able to leave Cuba and join them in Miami: “They looked so old. Like the world had swept the floor with them. You were my mother. And my father. And they were . . . they were strangers.”
Newton’s set provides both small and communal playing areas defined by platforms and skeletal frames, the central one being Beatriz’s Elegua Bakery, which features colorful tile floors, a display case and Cuban coffee always at the ready (Jodi Dellaventura did the set dressing and properties design). Lighting designer Eric Nelson paints sunsets onto the backdrop, finding a way to make different Maine moons striking and impossibly large.
Sound designer Reidar Sorensen brings Cuba into the space with music you might hear anywhere and everywhere in Miami, and the occasional thump of a beating heart underscores Marilyn’s worsening health. But one of Sorensen’s most significant contributions happens when he breaks the quiet with the beautiful song of a cardinal, a symbolic bird throughout the play. Costume designer Ellis Tillman’s choices are, as usual, spot on as they run the gamut from omnipresent flannel to a vibrant red dress for Marilyn in the play’s final moments.
Director David Arisco, who collaborated with Victoria Collado on the staging and movement of the spiritually uplifting final scene, guides his adroit cast to performances that bring out the longing, quirkiness and emotional conflicts of the likeable characters.
Hubicsak anchors the play as Beatriz, enriching her newfound family with her steadiness and empathy. As is so often the case, Price is superb, her masterful embodiment of Georgie an illustration of acting at its richest. Bonilla as Marilyn is sorrowful, furious and, in one remark about a Whole Foods gift certificate, perfectly hilarious.
Rey somehow infuses Tio Eme with kindness and warmth even when he’s giving Beatriz a piece of his mind in high-volume Spanish. Walton, whose Blake is at least partially inspired by Blanco, crafts a character who is excitable, observant and caring. Whether or not the skillful Gioia actually knows how to whittle, he makes you believe he does, from the tippy top of his comically large hat with earflaps to his booted feet.
The play’s ending, which follows a tragic loss, uses the dance and music of the Cuban guaguancó to make clear that even in mourning, Beatriz is not done with joy. Led by the spirited Marilyn, she dances with style and joy, her smile radiant as she registers a belief symbolized by the cardinal: Those who have left us in body remain in spirit.
“Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas” is a play that could be produced in many regional theaters, given the universality of its characters’ search for home, identity and belonging. But the play’s corazón, its heart, is Cuban. In essence, it’s a love song to a treasured culture, a way to mourn generations of loss, an anthem to resilience. And in greater Miami at the Miracle Theatre, its impact is amplified.
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WHAT: “Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas” by Richard Blanco and Vanessa Garcia
WHERE: Actors Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre’s Balcony Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables
WHEN: Wednesday to Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, through Dec. 3
COST: $40-85 (seniors 65 and over get 10 percent off weekdays only; students with valid student ID pay $15 for a rush ticket available 15 minutes before a weekday performance)
INFORMATION: 305.444.9293 or actorsplayhouse.org
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