The drawn-out tableau epitomizes the weakness and strength of GALA Hispanic Theatre’s florid but often arresting “Exquisita Agonía (Exquisite Agony),” written and directed by Nilo Cruz and performed in Spanish with English surtitles. This 2018 play, about a woman’s obsession with the recipient of her dead husband’s heart, brims with poetry and oversize emotion, perhaps reflecting that the heroine is an opera singer. Moments like the near-stranger embrace can, on one level, feel overheated.
But if there’s excess in his story, Cruz has, as a director, crafted a striking production that mirrors both the script’s heightened sensibilities and genuine human experience. That ear-to-chest sequence has a mythic quality: It speaks to grief, mortality and renewal. The realistic awkwardness of the situation is equally apparent: Empathizing, you long for a tension defuser. Where’s a ringing cellphone when you need it?
A Pulitzer Prize winner for “Anna in the Tropics,” Cruz centers “Exquisita Agonía” on Millie Marcel (Luz Nicolás), who has suspended her singing career to mourn her husband, Lorenzo. Despite the remonstrances of her children (Andrés Talero and Catherine Nunez) and the transplant surgeon, Dr. Castillo (Ariel Texidó), Millie befriends the organ recipient, Amér (Joel Hernández Lara). Although overwhelmed by conflicting emotions, not to mention the unnerving sense that his new ticker is altering his personality, Amér accepts an invitation to Millie’s home. But the Marcels are damaged people, and the visit doesn’t go as planned.
This is aria-grade stuff, a truth emphasized in Clifton Chadick’s spare, dreamscape set, backed by an illustration of a stage curtain. Christopher Annas-Lee’s splendid, high-drama lighting similarly echoes the story’s larger-than-life emotion and bursts of lyricism. (Amér muses that a heart resembles “the place where the roads meet . . . like a train station through which fear travels.”)
The stylized visuals complement the more naturalistic acting. Nicolás’s performance is writ large, but Lara nails the uneasiness of the gangly Amér, and José Antonio González creates a vibrant portrait of Amér’s supportive brother. Talero and Nunez ace the vulnerability and prickliness of the Marcel siblings.
Texidó gives the most winning performance as a medical overachiever slowly letting his guard down. In one delightful sequence, while flirting with Millie, Dr. Castillo sprawls on his back, letting his head flop comically over the edge of a stair. Amid all the angst and soap opera, this suddenly funny doctor becomes the story’s heart.
Exquisita Agonía (Exquisite Agony), written and directed by Nilo Cruz. Sound design, David Crandall; costumes, Moyenda Kulemeka; properties, Rayna Cook. About 2 hours. In Spanish with English surtitles. $45-$48. Through March 1 at GALA Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. galatheatre.org.