Considering the transgressions audiences might associate with a Catholic priest these days, Pulitzer-winner Nilo Cruz’s Bathing in Moonlight (★★★☆☆), takes the road of least controversy to depict a relatively tame love that dare not speak its name between a devout pianist and her priest.
Under Cruz’s bold direction of GALA Hispanic Theatre’s Spanish-language D.C. premiere, Hannia Guillén, as dutiful daughter and mom Marcela, and Raúl Méndez, as passionate Padre Monroe, still generate the heat of two bodies burning to be together but fighting their urges.
The padre even delivers a sermon about laying down barriers to love, before embarking on his perilous path of questioning why those barriers exist in the first place.
Cruz fuses elements of poetry, history, theology, and surreal dream imagery to serve the well-acted romantic melodrama, which often turns on a mere glance or lingering touch. Early on, Marcela gifts Padre Monroe a hat and helps him try it on, a simple gesture that Guillén and Méndez make into a brief, sensuous dance of repressed desire.
Though Marcela seems too patly defined as a martyr for her faith and family, Guillén invests the portrayal with a genuine sense of self-reproach. The proud Cuban-American daughter of immigrants, raised in the church, Marcela feels compelled by all her upbringing to reject the thought of Padre Monroe breaking his vows with her.
Lovers in illicit affairs often are written to claim they can’t help it, but Guillén makes it believable that Marcela really wishes she could help it, but, despite her strong will to resist, just can’t. Méndez, on the other hand, conveys Padre Monroe’s inner conflict, but more clearly conveys the clergyman’s worldly longing for Marcela.
In a moment alone and unguarded, the priest stands inside the church listening in ecstasy to his secret love play the piano. He appears ready to risk it all, vows be damned, perhaps sooner than the script calls for such total abandon.
Cruz’s text has the priest questioning his vows, and the Church’s doctrines towards celibacy as they apply in his relationship with Marcela, and in his relationship to God. Why must a vessel of God’s love deny himself physical love in order to serve faithfully? Why can’t he love and still lead his parish? He doesn’t want to live on faith alone, he pleads, in a dramatically potent scene between Méndez and Carlos Castillo as the somewhat rigid Bishop.
For Marcela, the questions nagging at her spirit generally lead back to her family, including her teenage son Trino (Víctor Salinas) and med student brother Taviano (Hiram Delgado) — neither performance that compelling — and elderly mother Martina (Luz Nicolas), who laments, poignantly, that she’s been trying to catch up to life since she arrived in this country from Cuba.
They’re all trying to catch up in one way or another, with Marcela shouldering the burden of her family’s financial troubles, as well as the scandal of her friendship with Padre Monroe. Her mother Martina, played with rich intelligence and comic timing by GALA company member Nicolas, carries the weight of the family’s dreams. She and her late husband brought their line here, after all.
In a semi-demented state, Martina mistakes her son Taviano for dead husband, Tavio (also Delgado), who, it turns out, does visit her in her dreams — which are beautifully realized by Cruz with surrealist flourishes. Not every colorful flourish flies, but the zest in every attempt earns admiration.
Cruz stages all the action zestfully, lustily, on and around a stone platform rent in two by gaping crevices. Seeing the sea in one fissure, Martina dives in, while, in another scene, a man might be buried down there.
Clifton Chadick’s scenery of stony stage surrounded by fabric screens adapts fluidly, through lighting and projections, to evoke secret meeting places or a church confessional, or the sweetly romantic land of possibility a moonstruck grandmother visits in her dreams.
Bathing in Moonlight (Baño de luna) runs through Oct. 1 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Performances are in Spanish with English surtitles. Tickets are $48, with several discount options available. Call 202-234-7174 or visit www.galatheatre.org.
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