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A famous writer, exiled to a distant island in an act of political censorship. A young man, who’s never left his tiny homeland, dreaming of traveling the world and finding the face of God. The impassioned women who love the former. The military complex imprisoning them both. Sound romantic and exotic? Oh, it is. But The Old Man, the Youth, and the Sea wouldn’t be nearly as gratifying if it didn’t also have a good head on its shoulders. It’s a tropical vacation — with a high IQ.

Directed by José Luis Arellano and going on now until March 3 at the Gala Theatre, The Old Man, the Youth, and the Sea tells the story of Spanish poet, novelist, and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (Horacio Peña, who spars and fences like a pro), who was banished to the Canary Islands in 1924 by the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera for writings deemed injurious to the public good. There, while plotting his escape, he meets and befriends Cisco (Víctor De La Fuente, expressive and human) a local who has read exactly none of his works — but Cisco can name all the stars, and has plans for becoming a great whale hunter.

In the script by Irma Correa (with English subtitles by Heather McKay), the relationship between the two men forms the crux of the story as they debate, scheme, compare notes, and share experiences. Correa’s play doesn’t hide from the intricacies of the situation: Unamuno doesn’t look like a prisoner. He gets, at least at first, lobster and sunbathing and visitors and camel rides on the beach. His position is complicated even further when Primo de Rivera issues a pardon: Accept it, and you can go free, but only by admitting the crime in the first place. Better to keep plotting. And Cisco has some secrets of his own, too…

This production makes two decisions I full-on do not understand — one that I respect, and one that I do not. For the former: The set, designed by Silvia de Marta, has been shaped into the room of Umamuno’s confinement (complete with bed, desk, sink, and chairs), but left strikingly bare and unpainted, a naked, Ikea-y monochrome. Why? Perhaps by denying the space its color and specificity, the crew meant to depict it as a kind of nowhere, a metaphysical weigh station. It’s unclear, but still kinda works.

Less defensible is having one actress play two very separate female parts: Umamuno’s wife and a wealthy admirer/would-be paramour. Luz Nicolás does fine work with both roles, but not only is the double-casting confusing, it conflates women with two very different relationships with the author. Let’s cast a second actress next time.

But this is a hiccup. For the most part, this Sea is smooth sailing. Compelling, provocative, with just enough drama to keep you on your toes. Gala has a winner with this one.

Feature photo by Stan Weinstein