Sonia Flew, a new play by Boston playwright Melinda Lopez, inaugurates The Huntington's new second stage at the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End. This production is cause for several celebrations, not the least of which is the unveiling of a stunning new state-of-the-art 360-seat proscenium theatre.
Secondly - and perhaps even greater cause for celebration - is the fact that Sonia Flew is a direct product of The Huntington's commitment to new play development. Lopez is one of four local writers (along with Sinan Ünel, John Kuntz and Ronan Noone) given a 2-year residency as a Huntington Playwriting Fellow and offered a productive, nurturing environment in which to create new works.
After a reading as part of last season's Breaking Ground Festival, the Huntington's Artistic Director Nicholas Martin selected Sonia Flew as the play he would direct to open the new theatre. This handsome production (with scenery by Adam Stockhausen, lighting by Frances Aronson and sound design by Drew Levy) shows off the creative possibilities afforded by the generously proportioned spaces behind the curtain (nearly the size of Boston's Shubert Theatre) as well as the intimacy and comfort of the auditorium.
Amelia Alvarez, Carmen Roman, Ivan Quintanilla,
Will Lebow and Jeremiah Kissel
Martin's first challenge was finding six actors who could effectively double as a mid-Western Jewish family in the post-traumatic stressed America of 2001 and as middle class Cubans shaken by the uncertainties of Fidel Castro's rise to power circa 1960. No one makes that transition totally successfully, especially when Zabryna Guevara's authentic-sounding Havana accent highlights the inconsistent efforts from the rest of the cast. And Amelia Alvarez's hairstyle, while perfect for a teenager in 2001, doesn't quite make that leap back either.
But accents and haircuts are mere quibbles when measuring the overall performances from this fine cast. Carmen Roman as the adult Sonia - the transplanted but fully homogenized matriarch of that Jewish American family - and as the Cuban family's stalwart housekeeper manages a near-breakdown in two different cultures admirably. Guevara, who appears briefly in the first part, is also heart wrenching when she takes center stage as Sonia's young mother in the second half.
The two actors representing the younger generation are most successful in their stateside roles. Alvarez as Sonia's daughter is totally convincing as the optimistic, conciliatory member of her troubled family, but far less so as the young Sonia on the brink of womanhood at only fifteen in a rapidly changing culture. Ivan Quintanilla is believable as Sonia's son who's having a tough time getting his family to understand why he dropped out of Brown University to go fight on the ground in Afghanistan, but he's less so as a fired up young Cuban equally enamored with Castro's revolution and the young Sonia.
Except for some difficulty sustaining the musical inflection and rhythm of the Cuban speech pattern, Jeremiah Kissel and Will LeBow are delightful in all of their cross-cultural roles. Kissel is spot on as Sonia's husband who has trouble leaving his therapist job at the office when he's at home being farther, husband and dutiful son. He's equally effective as a slightly questionable family friend trying to ingratiate himself with the revolutionaries while remaining loyal to those not coping as well. LeBow shines in Havana as Sonia's father, a man still on the fence but secretly rooting for President Kennedy to intervene, and, in a total contrast, as her tradition-bent Jewish father-in-law transplanted from Florida to Minneapolis for a "mixed marriage" December holiday celebration.
Lopez is adept at giving each character - even those we only meet briefly - a touch of honest humor as well as enough provocative layers of experience to allow us to delve fascinatingly beneath the surface. She has a great ear for conversational dialogue with a sparkle and a knack for adding a poetic flair for contrast in the more introspective moments.
I struggled a bit with the storytelling because pivotal characters keep secrets from each other and - up to a point - from the audience as well. Although a refresher in Cuba's history was helpful, I wish I'd gone into the play knowing less about the story background so I could have seen how it unfolds of it's own accord. So be forewarned: you might want to peruse the chronology of Cuba's political events and glance at the glossary, but I would hold off on reading the rest of the background material until later, after seeing the show. Just open your arms and let Sonia Flew come to you.
Sonia Flew in the Virginia Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St in Boston now through November 28th. Tuesday - Saturday at 7:30pm (except Nov. 2, 25); Sundays at 7 pm (except Nov. 21, 28); Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm and Wednesday at 2 pm (Oct. 20, 27 and Nov. 3 only). Tickets range from $14 to $50. For tickets or information, call the Huntington Box Office at 617-266-0800 visit the BU Theatre box office, 264 Huntington Ave. or the Calderwood Pavilion box office, 527 Tremont St. or visit one of these websites: www.huntingtontheatre.org or www.bostontheatrescene.com.