“Two Sisters and a Piano” gives a look into Castro-era Cuba

Helen Cespedes and Eden Espinosa holding each other
Helen Cespedes and Eden Espinosa in Two Sisters and a Piano by Nilo Cruz at Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ
Jason Manuel Olazabal and Eden Espinosa on stage
Jason Manuel Olazabal and Eden Espinosa in Two Sisters and a Piano by Nilo Cruz at Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ

2003 Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz’ (Anna in the Tropics) 1998 play Two Sisters and a Piano is being revived at Two River Theater in Red Bank. It paints a stark, somber picture of repression in the Cuba of 1991, where even artistry cannot for long stave off the blights of loneliness and stifled creativity. While this is a production with flaws, its powerful subject makes it a theatrical bucket-list item.

Two sisters, Maria Celia (Eden Espinosa) and Sofia (Helen Cespedes) live in a spacious colonial house that has seen better days. A grand piano is the centerpiece of the sparsely-furnished living room. Maria Celia is an author and literary free-thinker whose novels have been suppressed by the government for “counter-revolutionary” ideas.

The younger Sofia is a talented concert pianist. They have both been under house arrest following a jail term for their “crimes” against the state. The house is constantly watched and subject to random inspections; their neighbors and former friends no longer come to call.

Into their lives comes Lieutenant Portuondo (Jason Manuel Olazábal), bearing letters intercepted by the military from Maria Celia’s husband overseas. They strike a bargain — he reads aloud from her husband’s confiscated letters; she reveals the plot of her unwritten novel — which slowly turns seductive.

Meanwhile, Portuondo arranges for a piano tuner, Victor (Hiram Delgado), to service Sofia’s piano; the young man ignites her long-suppressed yearnings for romance and freedom from the house. But in the hyper-suspicious world in which Portuondo operates, is anything as it seems? And who can claim innocence in thought, word, or deed?

Cuban-American gay playwright Cruz also directs this production. He begins with a prologue-like nightmare scene of terror and intimidation before moving into the routine of life with the two sisters. He only returns to emotional energy in a second act scene with a fiery rift between the sisters. Cruz’ frequent choice of coolness bordering on stoicism drains the play of much of its potential energy.

Helen Cespedes wearing a suit
Helen Cespedes in Two Sisters and a Piano by Nilo Cruz at Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ

Despite the directional choices, each of the four actors turns in a nuanced, fully-realized character. At the same time, they mesh together as a cohesive company. They play on a beautifully realized set of the living room of the house, designed by Paul Tate Depoo III and lit by Lucrecia Briceno. Anita Yavich’s costumes not only reflect the characters’ positions but also embody their emotional states as well.

Two River Theater has chosen for its season closer a play that, perhaps under a different director, could have displayed more emotional life than it did. As it is, though, it is an examination of the mixture of truth and pretense in all lives under repression, and as such it is worth seeing. I encourage, with reservations, going to see this production of Two Sisters and a Piano.

Two Sisters and a Piano is presented at the Joan & Robert Rechnitz Theatre at Two River Theater in Red Bank through June 25, 2023. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit tworivertheater.org or call 732-345-1400.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has recently been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre reviewers. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.