Felicia (Natalia Delgado) and her son Ivanito (Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez) eat a special treat as the ghost of her father Jorge (Steve Ortiz) looks on. Credit: Cheshire Isaacs

Christina García has refashioned Dreaming in Cuban, her first of eight books, into a haunting, bittersweet, ethereal production. This world premiere theatrical adaptation captures the essence of García’s 1992 National Book Award finalist novel about three generations of the Cuban del Pino family.

Dreaming in Cuban, Central Works at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., through July 24

Dreaming in Cuban, set in 1979-80, is about mothers and daughters whose lives have been inextricably transformed by El Lider (Fidel Castro). Although at odds with their reaction to the Cuban revolution, they are forever tied as a family — whether in Cuba or in New York. But this poignant play is really about universal ideas involving love, loneliness, suspicion, autonomy, patriotism, phantoms and spirituality.

The stern family matriarch is Celia del Pino (Mary Anne Rogers), a gray-haired, uncompromising Cuban revolutionary and minor party official. She spends her days staring at the sea with binoculars, the first guard protecting the Cuban shore. At the same time, she thinks about her mourned, long-lost lover and her unhappy marriage to the now-deceased Jorge (Steve Ortiz). Jorge’s ghost periodically appears to his wife and daughters as if to make up for his failures during his lifetime.

Celia is the mother of two grown daughters, the tough, jingoistic émigré New Yorker, Lourdes (Anna Maria Luera), and the unstable Cuban, Felicia (Natalia Delgado). Neither shares their mother’s zeal for El Lider.

Lourdes lives in Brooklyn, New York, the site of her successful and appropriately named “Yankee Doodle Bakery.” Her rebellious late-teen daughter, Pilar (Thea Rodgers), is a budding artist who, at age 2, emigrated to the U.S. with her mother. She has fond memories (or fantasies) about her abuela Celia and longs to return to the Cuba of her imagination. Grandmother and granddaughter seem to magically and spiritually communicate with each other. But perhaps Pilar’s new romance with bakery worker Max (Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez) will change her thinking.

Adrift, doomed Felicia remained in Cuba and lives with her 11-year-old son Ivanito (well-played by Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez). Having lacked the strength to leave Cuba and defy her mother, Felicia is unhappy. Her mother sends her to an indoctrination camp run by the militia, which only adds to her depression. Her son’s education is supervised by Abuela Celia, who teaches him Russian and plans for his university education in Moscow.

Matriarch Celia del Pino (Mary Ann Rodgers, and her daughter Lourdes (Anna Maria Luera), an exile from Cuba, share a rare moment of intimacy. Credit: Cheshire Isaacs

When in the second act, Lourdes and Pilar return to Cuba for a tragic family funeral, the play’s action speeds up, and passions heat up. The tension among the family members reaches fever pitch with new revelations and, perhaps, some understandings, as Dreaming in Cuban concludes.

Author Christina García skillfully compressed her complicated, nearly 300-page novel into this moving dramatic version. Accomplished director Gary Graves did a masterful job of bringing Dreaming in Cuban to life. He gets extra credit for accomplishing this feat on a small stage, with minimal but effective lighting, sound and costumes. The actors were first-rate, with kudos to Anna Maria Luera as Lourdes, Mary Ann Rodgers as Celia and Thea Rodgers as Pilar (the last two are real-life mother and daughter).  

Although focusing on Cuba and Cuban Americans, Dreaming in Cuban presents worldwide themes that will resonate with all families, especially immigrant families. I thought about it long after it ended.

The play runs through July 31, on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, at the Berkeley City Club, that magnificent Julia Morgan-designed building, at 2315 Durant Ave.

Dreaming in Cuban has two acts and lasts 110 minutes, including one intermission. The theater can seat only about 50 people, so get your tickets early. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing is required. For information and tickets, visit the Central Works website.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...