In 1980, Fidel Castro played something of a mean joke on the United States. He opened one of his country's harbors for Cubans who wanted to emigrate—and then loaded up those Florida-bound boats with mental-health patients and criminals. In Exiles, Cuban-born playwright Carlos Lacámara dramatizes the Mariel boatlift by homing in on one ship, stranded in the Gulf of Mexico after a storm floods its engine. The boat's Cuban-American captain, Ronaldo (Andrés Alcalá), had intended to bring his ailing mother back to Miami. But she's been left in Havana, and instead Ronaldo is saddled with his much-detested brother-in-law Joaquin (Jason Glick) and Joaquin's seasick teenage daughter (Sekai Edwards)—oh, and with a tatted-up prisoner (John San Nicolas) and a babbling lunatic (Bobby Bermea).

Director Dámaso Rodriguez conjures a palpably tense atmosphere in the claustrophobic confines of the boat, which swivels around during the play (the video projections on the back wall, perhaps intended to give a sense of the sea's expansiveness, are less successful). Some of the performances in this Artists Rep production can feel labored, and emotions tend to rocket from mild to manic too quickly. At its best, though, Exiles explores the group's helter-skelter power dynamics. San Nicolas does a lot of the heavy lifting here, bringing an aggrieved frenzy to the role of the prisoner. Bermea has his weirdly affecting moments as well, and his stream-of-consciousness monologues—about VapoRub, microwaves, apples and imperialism—end up providing the most insight into Castro's repressive rule.

SEE IT: Exiiles is at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278. 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Sundays and 2 pm Sundays through Oct. 26. $25-$55. Tickets here.