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Love, Poetry, Revolution Take Playhouse Stage

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

It’s show time again at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, which this weekend opens its first fully-staged indoor production since 2019 with a play by Chilean author Antonio Skármeta.

Burning Patience — the Spanish title, Ardiente Paciencia, makes clear that these are flames of the heart — imagines the interweaving stories of Chilean poet-statesman Pablo Neruda and Mario, a young man who delivers mail in the coastal village of Isla Negra.

Mario is in love with Beatriz, whose mother Rosa scowls on their romance. Neruda, famed for his intimate verses, introduces his postman to the persuasive powers of metaphor and simile, and Mario begins to write his own love poems to Beatriz.

Neruda has a grand passion as well: a love for his country, which he served as a diplomat and Communist senator before fleeing into exile after Communism was outlawed in 1948.

By the early 1970s, when the play takes place, Neruda has been back in Chile for nearly two decades. He has won the Nobel Prize for literature and is firm friends with socialist president Daniel Allende, for whom he had stepped aside as a presidential candidate in 1970.

As played by Cuban-American actor Lawrence Redmond, Neruda smiles as he remembers the crowds that turned out for his campaign, then turns serious in reflection.

“What would become of me if indeed I were elected president of this most stubborn country, whose problems were so impossible to resolve . . . and possibly the most ungrateful of nations, whose presidents were hailed during their first month in office but martyred, justly or unjustly, for the remaining five years and 11 months?” he ponders.

Burning Patience began its life as a 1983 film directed by Mr. Skármeta, who then turned it into a novel and the play.

A 1994 Italian-language film adaptation, Il Postino, was nominated for several Academy Awards and later became an opera of the same name by Mexican composer Daniel Catán, starring Placido Domingo.

While Il Postino, the film, was dominated by the story’s rom-com elements, Mr. Skármeta’s play also highlights the political drama that was playing out in Chile where, in 1973, a U.S.-backed coup would bring an abrupt and bloody end to Allende’s rule and establish the dictator Augusto Pinochet.

“The movie doesn’t omit it entirely, but it really is downplayed and it’s all about the love story,” director Olga Sanchez told the Gazette in the playhouse green room during a break in rehearsals Tuesday afternoon.

“The play confronts the political realities, which I think are important in this day and age for us to think about — leadership and how people come to power,” Ms. Sanchez said.

Mr. Redmond has a more personal connection to the Chilean conflict: As a boy in Washington, D.C., he went to school with the children of exiled diplomat Orlando Letelier, who in 1976 was assassinated in Washington by Pinochet’s secret police.

Along with Ms. Sanchez and Mr. Redmond, who said his full Cuban surname would be Redmond y Betancourt, the rest of the cast members also have Latin American heritage.

Erik Robles, a 2022 graduate of the University of Rhode Island, plays Mario. Beatriz is portrayed by Bella Campos, a rising senior at Carnegie Mellon. Claudia Quesada, an actress based in Chicago and Miami, plays Rosa.

All four of the cast members are new to the Vineyard, but their director traces the start of her career to summer productions at the playhouse on Church street.

“So much of my earliest professional experience happened here,” Ms. Sanchez recalled. “It really was the threshold.” On top of long hours in rehearsal, the cast is staying together in a Vineyard Haven home near the playhouse. “It’s been a pleasure. We turned into a family really quickly,” said Mr. Robles, whose previous acting work has gener ally taken place close to home in Rhode Island.

“If it was otherwise, I’m not sure the play would be what it is, if we weren’t spending all that time together and forging our relationships. I feel very appreciative that we’re here together,” he added.

The actors have also had a chance to go to the Agricultural Fair, the Oak Bluffs Fireworks and Illumination Night, Ms. Quesada said, and they recently threw a salsa music party at the house.

“We got home [and] it just happened,” she said, smiling.

The production team for Burning Patience includes longtime Playhouse lighting designer Ernest W. Iannacone, veteran stage manager Timothy Toothman, set designer and painter Sean Roach, costume designer Chrysal Parrot and props master Jo Maxwell.

The play opens Friday and runs through Sept. 17 with shows Wednesdays through Saturdays, all at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are available online at mvplayhouse.org. The playhouse also offers discounted admission for Island residents on Fridays and cash-only “rush” tickets after 7 p.m.

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