Sonia Flew, by Melinda Lopez, the current offering at New Jewish Theatre, arrives in town with an impressive track record. Since the play was developed five years ago at the ambitious Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, it has been staged by many important regional theaters, including Steppenwolf in Chicago, which mounted a production the same season it debuted the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County. This twice-told tale, which initially is set in America three months after 9/11 and then moves back to Castro's Cuba in 1961 prior to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, reminds us of the way in which momentous world events directly affect otherwise ordinary individuals. It also reinforces the notion that a person's deepest secrets often reside precariously close to the surface of memory.
Sonia, a Cuban immigrant whose parents smuggled their daughter out of Havana against her will when she was fifteen, now lives in Minneapolis with her Jewish husband and their two children. Although this bicultural family is in constant motion, life is good — until nineteen-year-old son Zak (Billy Kelly), "a Fulbright just waiting to happen," announces that he has dropped out of college and joined the Marines. He wants to fight for America in Afghanistan.
The ensuing confrontations between mother and son, husband and wife, make for strong, immediate theater. The arguments are both blunt and nuanced, because these people are not ideologues; they deeply care for each other. "We are not splitting up," the father (John Flack, who finds empathy in desperation) tells his daughter in one of the evening's many touching moments. "This family does not do that. We don't."
Pace is of extreme importance to director Tom Martin. He has staged the show as if this Minnesota family actually lived in a seaside home: The dialogue rolls in on crashing waves. Then a lull, followed by another wave of crashing fury. Martin has been gifted with a uniformly solid cast that appreciates the rhythms of these well-written scenes. In the title role, Kari Ely burrows into the depths of her character to create an indelible portrait of a woman who is suddenly confronted with the stark reality that the security she has too long taken for granted — family security, national security — is at best tenuous. There comes a moment when her visiting father-in-law (Christopher Limber) talks about fighting in the Polish resistance during World War II. As the rest of her family listens to his stirring words, Ely's face shrivels. It is a stunning moment in an enthralling performance.
In Act Two we flash back to Castro's Cuba to relive the unspeakable events Sonia has kept locked within her for four decades. Once again the writing is cogent, the acting solid. Brooke Edwards is persuasive as Sonia's mother; Limber effectively portrays the gentle, erudite father. Meg Rodd, who played Sonia's daughter in the first act, is now a passionate young Sonia.
But it's tough for a viewer to change allegiance midstream, especially when we already know the outcome. Act Two does not pack the wallop of Act One. And the evening's denouement seems to be the least-thought-through scene in the script. Playwright Lopez, who is also an actress, knows how to write crackling dialogue that actors can work with. She does not, however, appreciate the thin line in drama between inevitability and predictability. What happens to this family is clearly ordained from the outset, thus diminishing the play's ultimate impact.
But Sonia Flew is a play and a production of substance. Just as the plot focuses on relocated immigrants, so too during construction has the New Jewish Theatre been forced to temporarily relocate to Clayton High School. Now for this one production it has relocated again, from the high school's intimate black-box theater into its large auditorium, which was not intended to present theater — a fact that will become irrelevant once you home in on Kari Ely. Her work here transcends all distractions.