The source material here is Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s beloved novel — an epic love story with recipes and a sprinkling of magical realism. Playwright Garbi Losada’s smart adaptation, previously produced in Spain, is making its U.S. premiere at GALA, where it is directed by Olga Sánchez. (Performances are in Spanish, with English surtitles.)
The family kitchen is at the heart of the story, so it’s fitting that a broad tiled stove should anchor the pink-walled ranch-interior set, designed by Mariana Fernández. The kitchen is the comfort zone for Tita (Inés Domínguez del Corral), a culinarily gifted young woman growing up in a Mexican border town in the early 20th century.
According to a family tradition enforced by Tita’s tyrannical mother, Mamá Elena (Luz Nicolás), the youngest daughter in a household may not marry, so as to remain a parental caregiver. So the lovelorn Tita must watch her sweetheart Pedro (Peter Pereyra) marry her older sister Rosaura (Guadalupe Campos). Subsequent decades bring violent shocks from the Mexican Revolution, as well as family crises. Fantastical happenings transpire, too, as when a dish of quail in rose petal sauce produces such an aphrodisiac effect that Tita’s sister Gertrudis (a vibrant Yaremis Félix) attracts a revolutionary fighter from miles away.
The funny quail-dinner scene represents the production at its most deft: Lust-suffused family members cram rose petals into their mouths while Gertrudis nearly hyperventilates; moments later, shadowy projections (designed by Niomi Collard) evoke Gertrudis’s improbable on-horseback lovemaking adventure.
Another winning scene conveys the death of the family cook: With a spookily fixed expression, the shawl-draped Nacha (the excellent Teresa Yenque) stalks out of sight through an eerie glow. (Christopher Annas-Lee designed the lighting. Moyenda Kulemeka designed the lively costumes.)
But other conceits and performances are less satisfying. To begin with, Domínguez doesn’t endow Tita with enough personality or inner life. Another acting turn is vivid to a fault: The dramatic intensity of Nicolás’s Mamá Elena seems rooted in an entirely different world from the rest of the story.
Directorial calibration should have kept the ostensibly comic wailing of servant Chencha (Karen Morales) from becoming as tedious as it does. Sound designer David Crandall’s now-celebratory, now-poignant music strikes the right tone, but the time-is-passing wordless narrative sequences that are sometimes set to its strains could use tightening, especially in the show’s latter half.
As for Tita’s sensuous recipes: From cream fritters to chiles in walnut-cream sauce, they get just enough mention to be tantalizing.
Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) , adapted by Garbi Losada from the novel by Laura Esquivel. Directed by Olga Sánchez; properties design, Tony Koehler; fight and intimacy director, Jonathan Ezra Rubin. With Carlos Castillo, Delbis Cardona and Karen Romero. About 2 and a half hours. In Spanish with English surtitles (English translation, Heather McKay). Tickets: $30-48. Through Oct. 7 at GALA Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Call 202-234-7174 or visit galatheatre.org.