Sometimes life gets so oppressive that one has no choice but to attempt to escape, no matter what the risk. Such was the case for thousands of Cuban refugees, who built rafts for themselves out of wood and tires and risked the 90 miles of stormy sea between their island and Florida. Playwright Nilo Cruz was one such refugee, fleeing Cuba with his parents on a Freedom Flight in 1970 at the tender age of ten. In his play A Bicycle Country, receiving its New York premiere from the newly formed East 3rd Productions, three characters set off on the harrowing journey, leaving everything behind in hopes of starting a new, fulfilling life. The production is gripping and harrowing, with strong performances from each of the three leads. When the play opens, in 1993, Julio, who is recovering from a stroke, is instructing his nurse, Ines, on how he wants his life scheduled and run. Julio's friend Pepe watches, serving as a middleman between the two. Julio initially seems as though he is in control, but soon it is Ines who takes over, forcing him to do arm exercises and to walk across the room until he is finally able to leave his wheelchair and resume his life. Yet, Ines is not satisfied with this. The three are still trapped in Cuba, where their quality of life has decreased substantially. The dissolution of the Soviet Union has cut off supplies of gasoline as well as food. The description of Cuba as a bicycle country comes from this period, when Cubans were encouraged to travel by bicycle, a mode of transportation they were not previously familiar with.
The sense of confinement is conveyed well in the set of the play. Michael Mallard has designed a modular set conisting of wooden platforms and angular planks to represent first Julio's one room house and later the escape raft. The three actors fill the space both as a house and as a raft in a way that amplifies its coziness.
Julio's progress from being completely incapacitated to being free is a parallel to the trio's escape in the second act of the play. While the first act could do more to establish what is wrong with the characters' lives, the second act fully establishes the harrowing nature of the trip across the ocean on little more than a pile of tires. While the first act serves as mostly exposition, the second act is downright gripping. The outcome is uncertain until the very end—will the three make it? Or will their efforts have been in vain? Regardless, the fact that life is so bad on their island that they'd risk death just to get away is breathtaking. Act 2 of A Bicycle Country may be difficult for some viewers to watch. The trio run out of everything—smokes, and more importantly, water—halfway through their trip. Pepe and Ines start hallucinating, with Julio remaining the only sane individual. Lorraine Rodriguez does a terrific job as Ines, conveying a sense of hope even when all is lost.
In the her note accompanying the program of A Bicycle Country, dramaturg Shari Perkins challenges the audience to look at the world as Ines, Julio, and Pepe have, asking what we'd be willing to sacrifice in order to fix what we think has gone wrong. If we are to take a cue from A Bicycle Country, the answer would be a lot, and it would all be worth it in the end.