By Kay Kipling
There are so many stories related to the Holocaust and World War II, both of survivors and the dead, that it is possible for them to lose their meaning if they are not told in a compelling voice. Fortunately, the Asolo Rep’s current production of Sotto Voce, at the Historic Asolo Theater, has that voice in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz.
Cruz draws from a true story—the turning back from both Cuba and the United States of the SS St. Louis, filled with Jewish asylum seekers who instead of finding freedom ended up dead in the camps of Nazi Germany—but he doesn’t try to summon up the horror of that voyage in an epic way. Rather, he hones in on the personal story of 80-ish German-born writer Bemadette Kahn, who lost the love of her life, Ariel Strauss, because of that rejected ship back in 1939.
Bemadette (Kathryn Hunter) now lives in her Manhattan apartment with only her maid/assistant, the Colombian-born Lucila (Hannia Guillen) for company, until the day she starts receiving phone calls and emails from a young Jewish Cuban student, Saquiel (Marcel Mascaro), who wants to recover her memories for his own reasons. Bemadette is reluctant, but gradually warms to the charm of Saquiel and, indeed, begins to see in him her own doomed Ariel.
“See” may not be really the right word here, as their relationship takes place, not in person, but through those long phone calls and email conversations. As Saquiel finds his way into both Bemadette’s heart, and that of the lonely Lucila, Cruz weaves a magical spell that enables both the characters, and us, to move past age, infirmity, distance and other barriers to an intimacy that brings Bemadette both pain and happiness.
That spell is greatly aided by the scenic design of Adrian Jones—high shelves lined with books and possessions of Bemadette’s that occasionally can also serve as a perch for Saquiel—and the projection designs of Robert Figueira, which take us back and forth between the ship’s voyage and more contemporary Manhattan. But it’s occasionally broken by awkward gestures or staging here. Hunter spends much of the evening in a wheelchair (due to an injury the actress sustained), but that’s not a problem. It’s more that her repetitive movements, with her hair or her scarf (and Lucila’s, with her glasses) can distract and make us briefly lose our connection with Cruz’s otherwise convincing story.
That’s a small and perhaps temporary issue with director Melissa Kievman’s production, which in general does succeed in conveying Cruz’s poetic dialogue, along with flashes of humor that keep the play grounded. The foundation is here for the actors to become more comfortable with their roles and their relationships as the run continues.
Sotto Voce continues through April 26; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.