In his fascinating new memoir/cookbook, Tastes Like Cuba, New York playwright Eduardo Machado describes a 2001 visit to the land of his birth, which his family had left 40 years earlier to escape the harsh policies of Castro’s new regime. In Havana’s El Vedado district he discovered Gladys’s House—a paladar, or privately owned dining establishment, illegal but tolerated. “Gladys made food that reminded me of my childhood more than anything I had ever eaten,” writes Machado, who’d been just eight when his family left. Machado recalls in the book that “Gladys ran her business out of a grand Art Deco villa that had been meticulously kept up over the years.” One night at dinner there Machado noticed a picture of an elegant woman dressed in 1950s fashions. When he asked Gladys who the person in the portrait was, she answered with a single sentence: “The lady who owned this house.”

The incident—along with Gladys’s cuisine and the intense memories it evoked—inspired The Cook, which explores the volumes of history and emotion hinted at in Gladys’s terse response. Premiered in 2003 at the Hispanic off-Broadway theater Intar (where Machado became artistic director in 2004), the richly flavored drama is now receiving its Chicago premiere at the Goodman in a fine staging highlighted by Karen Aldridge’s charismatic lead performance.

Machado’s heroine, also named Gladys, is the cook for a wealthy Cuban family during the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, whose corrupt regime in the 1950s threatened to turn the island into a “floating casino” and de facto American colony. When the play begins on December 31, 1958, Gladys—whose coffee-colored skin reflects her racially mixed background and subservient status—is preparing a magnificent baked Alaska with strawberry ice cream for a New Year’s Eve party being thrown by her fair-skinned mistress, Adria. But the clock is ticking toward more than a new year. When word arrives that Castro’s guerrillas are sweeping into Havana, Adria must flee, abandoning her guests, her servants, and her mansion. Certain that the revolution will be short-lived, Adria asks Gladys to take care of the house till she returns. Gladys—indebted to Adria’s family for her home and profession—pledges to do so.

Forty years pass. Gladys keeps control of the house because her husband, Carlos—once Adria’s chauffeur—rises to a powerful bureaucratic post in Castro’s government. She keeps control of the house because she stays true to Adria’s memory—just as Carlos stays true to Cuba’s socialist ideals despite economic hardship and political oppression. She keeps control of the house—but at a terrible emotional cost, for in order to stay true to her promise she must betray others and endure others’ betrayal. She keeps control of the house—and turns it into a popular paladar catering to American tourists, including Cuban expatriates. She keeps control of the house—and awaits Adria’s return.

Gladys, of course, embodies the Cuban people, but in Aldridge’s subtly textured portrayal she’s human as well as iconic—and utterly convincing as she ages from 30 to 70. She’s feisty yet serious, sensual yet dignified, strong willed yet shyly vulnerable, controlling a deep feeling of loss with robust humor and a fierce, sometimes misguided sense of honor and duty. Director Henry Godinez’s excellent supporting cast includes Maricela Ochoa as pampered Adria, Edward F. Torres as macho Carlos, Monica Lopez as Carlos’s daughter by another woman, and Phillip James Brannon as Gladys’s cousin Julio—flamboyantly gay in a nation where “deviants” faced imprisonment or worse.

Designer Todd Rosenthal’s set re-creates the room where Gladys both rules as queen and labors as servant—a sprawling kitchen outfitted with the most modern amenities the 1950s have to offer, though in 1997 it’s a kitschy time capsule. The production also features Robert Christen’s lighting, Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes, and eloquent, evocative incidental music by Argentine-born guitarist Gustavo Leone.

Machado’s script—aided by snippets of recorded speeches by the likes of John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and, of course, Castro—effectively fuses the personal and the political, using the characters and their conflicts to offer sometimes opposing views of Cuba and its relations with the United States. It acknowledges the flaws of Castro’s communist rule, including the government’s unequal distribution of once-private property and its vicious persecution of homosexuals. But it also reminds us of revolutionary goals at least partly achieved—in education and health care, the emancipation of women, racial equality—and of the cruel punishment America’s economic and political sanctions have inflicted on Cuba’s poor. Most important, this rousing play movingly and memorably honors the strength, spirit, and sacrifices of a divided people—the Cubans who left their homeland, the ones who stayed behind, and the children of both groups, heirs to a fragmented identity shaped by tragic circumstances. v