Sonia Flew at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, Bloomfield, Michigan
SONIA FLEW was a stellar choice for my second seen production of 2011. I had been looking forward to seeing this play for awhile, where a good friend played a featured role. I chose to attend the closing performance of their very long run. (In general, I enjoy and appreciate the heightened sense of character, place and emotion that the finale often brings to shows.) This production, a “co-pro” between JET and the Performance Network Theatre, began performances in mid September of 2010 and continued to the JET in December after a break in November. I also chose to attend the play semi-cold, not reading any reviews ahead of time and only having a basic knowledge of the plot. I was glad to have done both of those actions. Finally, I felt the play as a whole was well worth the effort to come and see here in Michigan. I learned after the fact that there had been a Bay Area production last year at San Jose Repertory Theatre, but that was not on my radar screen at all, where SJ is a good 70 miles from Marin.
The show was certainly worth the wait and the trip to get here! It told a stirring and powerful story of an interconnected family crisis or turning point in 1961 and 2001, centered around one character, Sonia. The entire cast played dual, non overlapping roles in the first and second acts, in some cases making a total 180 degree turn in character. Interestingly, the story was told in reverse chronological order. I did not initially understand the choice for that mode of storytelling, but appreciated it, drawing comparisons to works of film (Memento) and theatre (Betrayal). The playwright, Melinda Lopez, used a “flash forward” technique that I always appreciate, dropping a start of show foreshadowing clue to events that were explained much later. I used the same device in my own play Future’s Secret in 2006.
In Act 1, we’re introduced to Sonia, a seemingly successful although possibly anxious woman in her early to mid 50’s. She has a comfortable life in Minneapolis. She’s married to a Jewish man, though she herself is not Jewish, and they have two teenage children – a 19 year old son and 15 year old daughter. Having been right in between those two ages (17) myself at that time in 2001, I appreciated the contextual details in the script, such as the teens hogging the phone line because they were online, the sense of urgency and confusion following the 9/11 attacks, and the question of how much one can do to serve one’s country. Along those lines, the dialogue also hinted at the politicizing of the USA that would come in the future, which I found intriguing, as the play premiered in 2004 at the height of “Blue vs. Red State” tensions.
The audience is quickly introduced to the developments of plot. Zak, Sonia’s son, has decided to enlist in the National Guard/Army, claiming that he feels compelled in a time of national crisis. However, he’s also in college, and his parents are immediately conflicted by his choice. Initially Sonia is not sure what Zak wants to talk to her about, and I recognized the honesty of her lines that said to the effect of “Whatever you want to tell me, it will be alright” – conveying the unconditional family love. When Sonia discovers the reality of her son’s choice, she is less supportive. We’re offered hints as to why Sonia feels so anxious about her son’s decision in a few soliloquies she gives to the audience. The momentum doesn’t stop there, as family tensions escalate over Zak’s process and the family is thrown into ideological conflict when Sonia’s Polish father in law, a veteran, comes to visit for a holiday dinner. The family reaches a boiling point, and the audience is left to believe they have made a permanent split. The Act 1 closer hints at further challenges that Zak may face, and fates are left unclear.
The dramatic urgency of Act 1 made a clear agreement with the audience to come back for Act 2. I appreciated how the JET Theatre offered some dramaturgical analysis for the audience to view. Great detail was given to the topic of Operation Peter Pan, a component of Cuban history that plays a key role in Sonia’s life. I was not familiar with this element of history. I could tell that the cast took great care to develop a sense of historical authenticity and honoring the past. My friend told me that the Ann Arbor opening night was graced, just by chance, with the presence of a Cuban refugee family.
The second act transports the story back to Cuba in 1961. The change of venue was artfully conveyed through some modest set and lighting changes. Initially it seemed surprising to see the actors in different roles, with “older Sonia” now taking the role of “Marta”, a housemaid, for example. I was reminded of a deck of cards or layer cake motif as the plot continued to develop. What initially seems to be charmingly domestic and historical is revealed to be much more intricate. I won’t spell out the whole dynamics of the story here.
Ultimately the story concludes on a hopeful note. In my theatregoing and dramatic criticism, I always appreciate plays the most if they strike a feeling of humane honesty, which was certainly true with this show. I feel that I/we go to the theatre for reflections and direct engagement on our lives. With a play like this that looked at older historical and recent historical events, the balance between story, intensity, drama and LIFE was movingly clear.
I’m pleased to have sampled Michigan theatre in two very different offerings this weekend. I find it’s useful to be reminded of the value of “other markets” when traveling away from the Bay Area, not getting too caught up in the region’s status as #3 theatre market in the country. And as I said earlier, something about seeing shows conclude also feels transcendent in its own way. With a show like this, that undoubtedly grew as the long run went on, I feel grateful to have seen it at its peak – and shared in a movingly honest embodied experience.