The emotional stakes are high in Nilo Cruz’s “Baño de Luna” (“Bathing in Moonlight”). Cruz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, also directs GALA Hispanic Theatre’s production of his play. While the story itself is one that is not necessarily all that unique, the intensity and drama of this production certainly make it an evening of theatre that powerfully stands apart.
…an evening of theatre that powerfully stands apart…a soul-searching, one-of-a-kind homage to the spirit that makes us human.
The premise is a relatively common one. A devout priest falls in love with a seemingly demure, faith-filled parishioner, and they must consequently traverse the very slippery slope on which they find themselves. The Thorn Birds covered this ground well. But what Cruz does here as both writer and director is to take a more introspective approach, presenting an authentically human snapshot of love that should be wrong, but then again, what, after all, does “wrong” really look like?
Father Monroe (Raúl Méndez) is a beloved Catholic priest. He’s devoted his life to his church and his parishioners. As he initially makes his way to the stage from the aisle, stopping to converse with audience members—the stand-ins for his congregation—his geniality and charisma come shining through. The impassioned sermon that follows this unexpected entrance hits some pretty weighty notes, particularly given the events that are about to unfold. We are also introduced to the family that will soon come to be embroiled in this forbidden love story. Marcela (Hannia Guillén), the object of Father Monroe’s desire, her son Trino (Victor Salinas), her mother Martina (Luz Nicolás) who is experiencing the early symptoms of dementia, and her brother Tavio (Hiram Delgado), now home from studying medicine abroad.
Padre Monroe is not the only one in this play with secrets. Marcela exudes moral conflict as she struggles to shield her ailing mother from money problems, from her brother’s deception, and her own illicit activities. Martina, the waning matriarch, meanwhile has been having secret “trysts” with her long-dead husband. Trino has taken to escaping into his own dream-like universe. There are moments of humor, but that humor is constantly shaken by the extreme emotional terms of this play.
The character of Padre Monroe is a difficult one to nail down. He is devoted to God but consistently questions the reason for that devotion. He is enamored of Marcela but doesn’t seem fully convinced that he is capable of true love. He is hesitant to intrude on the family’s inner life, but yet immediately makes himself at home within their circle. Cruz places the focus squarely on Monroe’s crisis of conscience as personified by the repeated intrusions of the bishop (Carlos Castillo)—and it works, quite well.
The entire production embodies a lyrical, haunting moment in time during which everyone’s lives will be forever altered—be that in a good way or a painful one. Clifton Chadick’s set design combined with the special effects—produced by lighting designer Christian Henrriquez, sound designer Justin Schmitz, and projection designer Hailey LaRoe—come together to transport audiences to a world that is quite literally representative of the abyss we all sometimes tread. The stage is essentially divided in half, a gold-painted chasm illuminated to varying effects diagonally slices across, suggesting a Dantean journey of a truly divine scope. It is indeed something to behold.
For their parts, the actors, particularly Méndez and Guillén, do an incredible job of sustaining the emotional force that propels this production forward. The story is easily subsumed by the actors’ powerful reactions and interactions, and it seems that is precisely how this play was designed. Cruz’s directorial choices all come back to his instinct to spotlight the characters’ inner conflict made manifest. It becomes easy to get lost in their passion, their joy, their heartbreak and their fear.
GALA Hispanic Theatre always puts on an impressive show. With Nilo Cruz at the helm of this one, GALA brings DC audiences a soul-searching, one-of-a-kind homage to the spirit that makes us human.
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes including one 10-minute intermission.
“Bathing in Moonlight” runs through October 1, 2023 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW, Washington DC, 20009. For more information and to order tickets, go online.