Anna in the Tropics In this show, the heat's on right from the beginning. Awaiting the new "lector" who's been hired to read to them while they roll cigars, three women daub their faces and wipe the sweat from their necks during the Gulf summer of 1929. Reading great novels "with gusto" to the factory workers passes the time and relieves the drudgery. Unfortunately, it also awakens desires and gives them ideas. When the book happens to be Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's classic tale of adulterous passions in ice-cold Russia, we know there's trouble ahead. Author Nilo Cruz doesn't disappoint, but he doesn't surprise either. In arch, overripe dialogue, the characters spout such hothouse poetry, the play drips with Floridian humidity. However, it's all rather artificial -- Cruz's language is top-heavy, and it can't support his predictable plot. Ilich Guardiola, as new lector Juan Julian, looks smoldering in his Panama hat and white linen suit, but there's no natural heat emanating from him. We must take on faith the effect his words -- and Tolstoy's -- have upon Conchita (Laura Kaldis), unhappy wife of cheating husband Palomo (Joel Sandel). And though sleek in her sundresses, Kaldis plays too prim and proper to be so quickly thawed by Juan's seductive words. Matriarch Ofelia's dialogue is inappropriately rich and evocative. It doesn't suit her any more than it suits any of the other characters, but Luisa Amaral-Smith endows her with earthy bedrock. Strong and resolute, she anchors the family and the drama with a natural fire. She's the most real of them all, and the drama brightens considerably whenever she's around. Through April 15. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., 713-524-6706.
The Glass Menagerie Tennessee Williams's first success on Broadway contained the central themes that would define his idiosyncratic work throughout his entire career: Dreams turn out to be crippling illusions, while sensitive loners are doomed to defeat by insensitive, brute males. The palette in his 1945 "memory play" is softer and the gay subtext subtler, but by no means is the resolution any less harsh and unforgiving. Tom (Tom Long), breadwinner for his failed Southern family, aches to break the strangling hold of his mother Amanda (Helen Myers), whose charms are pinned to the past like a faded corsage. His sister Laura (Kay Allmand), fragile as one of her beloved glass figurines, is pathologically inept, suffering under Amanda's shadow. Tom, for now at least, finds solace with "companions" at the movies, but Laura's fulfillment -- according to her mother -- lies in the futile hope that a "gentleman caller" (Bill Diggle) will come to the rescue. Myers gives Amanda a backbone of steel under the crinolines, but she's trapped in Act II under a comically inappropriate cotillion dress that erases her character instead of enhancing it. Long gives a defining portrait of the conflicted brother unable to save his pathetic sister from life's free fall. Diggle's breezy "caller" -- all the more heartbreaking because he's no real brute -- becomes the inadvertent destroyer of illusions. Tom escapes his past, but can never forget it, and Williams's haunting play is one that swirls in your head long after you've seen it. Through April 14. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone "Everybody has to find his own song...when a man forgets his song, he goes off in search of it, till he find out he's got it with him all the time." So states old lame shaman Bynum Walker (a phenomenal Wayne DeHart) to whoever will listen at the 1911 Pittsburgh boardinghouse where August Wilson's compelling drama occurs. To practical homeowner Seth (Byron Jacquet), this is all so much "heebie-jeebies" stuff, while Seth's wife Bertha (BeBe Wilson) sees no harm in Bynum's pigeon sacrifices and loopy dances at dawn. Naive country boy Jeremy (Broderick Jones), fresh to the big Northern city, wants the good life and the loose women who go along with it and pays no mind to Bynum's warnings. New tenant Mattie (Autumn Knight) wants Bynum to "fix it" and find her man, who walked out on her. Meanwhile, Bynum's charms and spells frighten sexy, headstrong Molly (Rachel Hemphill Dickson), who doesn't want to be tied down to any man. And then there's Loomis (Timothy Eric Dickson), foreboding and grim with voice to match, who's on a quest to find the wife who abandoned him when he was illegally sent to a chain gang for seven years. Wilson supplies haunting poetry, gorgeous melody and magic realism to his characters, who have been displaced from their Southern roots. They're all searching for something, and it's the individual's quest effortlessly morphed into the universal that gives this play its magnificent resonance. In Ensemble Theatre's masterful hands, this powerful, mesmerizing drama sings out loud and proud and beautiful. It's a Houston theatrical event not to be missed. Through April 8. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.
Anna in the Tropics
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Wicked Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman's Wicked is a deliciously salty antidote to all those saccharine Broadway musicals that are too common these days. Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, the story is about what was going on behind the scenes in the Land of Oz when Dorothy and Toto were happily skipping down the Yellow Brick Road on their way to see the Wizard. Over the course of the smartly skeptical show, we learn that good and bad aren't always easy to identify and that people in power tell big lies. Glinda the Good Witch (played here by a wonderfully naughty Christina DeCicco) starts out life as a spoiled brat, while Elphaba (played by the dark beauty Victoria Matlock), more commonly known as the Wicked Witch of the West, is a thoughtful girl who cares deeply about others. The two meet in school and become fast friends even though they're so different. Elphaba wants to change the world, while Glinda just wants to have fun. What happens once the two girls get to Oz explains a lot about that talking Tin Man, the Scarecrow and that falling house from Kansas. There's love songs ("I'm Not That Girl"), girl power tunes ("For Good") and lots of powerful feeling by the end of this story, which doesn't end sweetly like so many dreadful musicals these days. Instead, it ends on a thoughtful note filled with fragile hope. Through April 15. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby, 713-629-3700.