Disconnection and longing are inherent in exile. When your home is taken from you, each street corner is a stabbing reminder of what is not yours. Each missed opportunity is a daydream of what could be if only you stayed. That sense of loss hangs heavily over “Las Hermanas Palacios” (“The Palacios Sisters”), writer Cristina Garcia’s adaptation of “Three Sisters,” currently playing at Gala Hispanic Theatre. This version binds the emotional clarity of Chekov’s text to a particular cultural and historical moment, reviving the classic tale of yearning by exploring a world where home is “less than an hour away by plane, but unreachable.”
Adaptation is a difficult art and rarely done successfully. This attempt that so gracefully builds on the original may be rarer still.
On a sweltering May night in 1985, 21-year-old Irina Palacios (Carolina Reyes) arrives at the La Varona nightclub in Miami, rejoining her two older sisters and brother who fled Havana after their father passed away. As she slips into the thronging crowd and thumping music, she dreams of returning to Cuba and dancing with the National Ballet. The entire the family wants for something more. Gentle Maria (Catherine Nuñez) wishes for a love stronger than her abusive policeman husband. Brother Andrés dreams of an end to Salsa nights in seedy clubs so he can rededicate his life to classical music. Meanwhile, Oldest Olga (Yaiza Figueroa) wishes for their family to regain its gentle, loving ways, like the days before Andrés’ American showgirl paramour, Nancy (Rachael Small), joined the fray. As the group exchanges barbs and observations, the club Owner (Luz Nicolás) and the array of dealers, developers, and general lowlifes drink, snort, and party the neon night away.
As the colorful cast of characters flits and flies in and out of the Palacios residence, the story straps the audience to a roller-coaster ride of naturalist melodrama. Star-crossed romance with drug kingpins, a plot to steal the family home, and a possessive game of love are a few developments flying by in this exceptionally pacy script. Considering how much the authors consolidate from the original, it’s impressive the script loses so little in translation. Instead, as the family is so quickly caught in a steamy web of forbidden romances with drug lords and gambling debts, the intensified pace creates a synergy with the boom-and-bust setting of Miami.
When that pace slows, engaging performances buoy the more intimate scenes. The sisters maintain an effortless chemistry and sense of intimacy with one another that quietly fractures with the introduction of other elements. Catherine Nuñez as Maria stands out with a quiet pathos that contrasts cleanly with the louder script. Her mesmerizing chemistry with lothario gang-lord, Virgil (Camilo Linares), stands out even further, though that’s partially due to Linares’ deft charm and towering magnetism. Yaiza Figueroa effortlessly paces the scenes she’s in, ensuring that every emotional beat hits with pinpoint precision while squeezing every ounce of emotion and comedy from a very lean role. Finally, Gerardo Ortiz González serves as the philosophical core of the play as a family friend and dodgy investor Chumo. While much of his dialogue falls between a doddering retiree or drifting philosopher, Gonzales adds a haunted but hopeful knowingness to his lines, appropriate for the only person connected to the family who feels comfortable in this new world.
In keeping with its setting, this production is a true feast for the eyes. The sisters’ bright green bungalow, the central set for the show, is impeccably designed by Frank J. Oliva to effectively transform into seedy clubs and motels while staying provincially delightful as a family dwelling. Costuming by Rodrigo Muñoz equally pulls you perfectly into the era in question. It economically serves as key stand-ins for class, experience, and status, echoing the characters’ degradation in the script. The loudest plaudit belongs to lighting designer Hailey LaRose. Her combined use of harsh, white side-lighting and blaring neon strips that accent the house gives critical moments a sense of hyperreality, like a brilliantly-staged, candid club photo from a gonzo journalist. Each element coalesces to highlight the superb duality of the cast, both bright and hopeful and dark and seedy at the same time.
Justin Schmitz’s sound design is less purely effective. Though the choice of soundtrack is strong, the intense change between volume levels often threatens to knock out an audience’s immersion. That balance of immersion can also be affected by certain blocking choices. While Adrián Alea’s direction is pacy and provides clear sight lines, the tendency to fit characters into block, unmoving columns in group scenes, distracts from their otherwise breezy naturalism. Allowing more casual freedom and mingling would have improved focus on the central scene, while maintaining a more coherent sense of reality. The biggest knockout of naturalism is the addition of scenes related to Santeria, the traditional Caribbean religious practice. Though I can see their value in demonstrating the sisters’ desperation, these strongly performed scenes by priestess Ana Sofia (Nadia Palacios) again pull us from the play’s thoughtfully constructed world without linking back to the play’s broader themes.
Those themes are too sticky to ignore. Cristina Garcia’s script never loses sight of that longing for a bygone home. Even in the most riotously fun moments, the cast stays haunted by that impossible dream. As the tale closes, the yearning Chekov wrote is only intensified by calling back to the nostalgic dream of a Havana night. Adaptation is a difficult art and rarely done successfully. This attempt that so gracefully builds on the original may be rarer still.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including a 10-minute intermission
Advisory: Age 16+. Contains scenes of violence, depictions of graphic sexual content, trauma, abuse and sexual assault, depictions and discussions of drugs and alcohol, and additional adult content.
“Las Hermanas Palacios” runs through February 25, 2024 at GALA Hispanic Theatre. 3333 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20010. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm. Note: The play is in Spanish, though subtitles are available for an English speaking audience. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.