by John Stoltenberg
Among the revelatory dimensions of this lyrical play is one that caught my attention by surprise. I knew going in that Sotto Voce, by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Nilo Cruz, would resonate with the contemporary plight of refugees because it references a tragic historical event: the voyage of the S.S. St. Louis, which set sail in 1939 from Hitler’s Germany for Cuba filled with nearly a thousand Jews expecting temporary refuge as tourists till their applications for U.S. visas were approved. But they were refused entry by Cuba, then by the U.S. and Canada as well, so the ship was forced to turn back to Germany, where upon disembarking most of the passengers were sent to Nazi camps and perished.
I knew the theme of imperiled immigrants ostracized from sanctuary by cold-hearted government leaders would hit home in these horrid times. And it did. Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr’s choice to program Sotto Voce was more than pertinent; in the context of “our country’s current immigration debates,” as he says in his program note, it was “an imperative.”
But there arose for me in Sotto Voce another theme, as if whispered under the surface but just as profound: what the play says about writing and the life of the mind. Within the play’s dreamlike story and rhapsodic language can be discerned penetrating insights about the relation of writing to memory, and of memory to writing. One can literally hear Cruz illuminating how literature itself—the art of it, the act of making it—can be an antidote to the horrors of history. This thesis in the hands of a professor or literary critic might sound all well and good, convincing intellectually in the abstract. But Cruz’s genius in Sotto Voce is to embody that premise in people, plot, and poetry such that it comes alive before our eyes.
Now on view in a transfixing production at Theater J directed by José Carrasquillo—with exquisite performances by Brigid Cleary, Andrés C. Talero, and Desiree Marie Velez—Sotto Voce tells a story of two writers: one a young Cuban Jewish man named Saquiel (Talero) and one an elderly German-born novelist named Bernadette (Cleary). Bernadette now lives in an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York City, where the more realistic portions of the play are set. There’s a chair for reading, a desk for writing, and a projected view out the window.
Cruz deftly incorporates the fateful S.S. St. Louis voyage by giving both Saquiel and Bernadette a personal connection to it. Saquiel’s grandaunt was a passenger. And Bernadette, when she was 19, was in love with a Jewish man named Ariel who was also on the ship. Saquiel sets the play in motion when he seeks to learn from Bernadette her memories of her lost love and obtain her writings about it for a history project he is doing. The beginning of the play consists mostly of Saquiel’s persistent communications (by email, phone, and apartment-building intercom) and Bernadette’s resistance to his entreaties. “Are you stalking me?” she demands to know at one point, not without cause.
In this dogged pursuit of a source by a writer, Sotto Voce resembles in form another play Carrasquillo directed for Theater J, the 2016 production of The Body of an American. In that two-hander by Dan O’Brien, the playwright himself is a character. By means of relentless emails excerpted in the script, O’Brien hounds another character, a photojournalist and war correspondent, in hopes of obtaining interviews that O’Brien can make into a play. In both Sotto Voce and The Body of an American, the narrative momentum and our credulity are sustained because we take the interrogator’s determination to be deeply felt and urgent. In Sotto Voce, Cruz creates for Saquiel a compelling passion and a moving backstory, and largely because of Talero’s winningly heartfelt performance in the role, we see the character not as a creepy pesk—and not as a walking/talking theatrical device (though structurally that’s what he is)—but rather as a real, caring writer in worthy quest of source material (and we want him to succeed!).
The second writer character Cruz creates, Bernadette, is the published author of a body of work that young Saquiel has read and admired. She is evidently successful as we see from her pricey residence and the fact she has a personal assistant/housekeeper (Lucila, vivaciously and mischievously played by Velez). She is also a real writer, as we see from Cleary’s impeccably truthful performance. Even before we see more of Bernadette’s emotional life expressed through Cleary’s heartrending range, we recognize in Bernadette a writer at work in her mind with words even when she is not literally writing.
When Saquiel learns that Bernadette cannot bring herself to write about what happened to Ariel, Saquiel recognizes his emotional opening to the historical material he seeks; and as the story unfolds, he in turn offers Bernadette the gift of emotional access to that memory cache as well. The way this transaction occurs between the characters is extraordinary to behold. They never are in the same space at the same time, but through the illusion of the imagination and the magic of language, Bernadette inhabits Ariel then Saquiel inhabits Ariel too. And in that empathic transfiguration and that transcendent act of rewriting reality—in order recover emotional truth and reclaim one’s self—Bernadette and Saquiel share in a redemption onstage so powerful that it feels beyond words. Except, of course, it was with words that writing found the feelings.
The inner lives of characters who are writers are rarely as persuasively portrayed in plays as they are by Cruz in Sotto Voce. And to some extent the “news hook” of this production—its relevance to the current refugee crisis—commands attention that can overshadow what is truly timeless in this play: its theme of the intrinsic bond between writing and memory. Through writing, memories can be recovered that we have evaded. Through reading others’ shared memories, we can re-find our own. Writing and remembering are twinned in the heart and mind—and essential to life.
The healing and connecting power of the imagination is not imaginary; it is real—as we are stirringly reminded in Theater J’s beautiful staging of Nilo Cruz’s Sotto Voce.
Don’t forget to see it.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission.
Sotto Voce plays through October 29, 2017, at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.
LINK: Review: ‘Sotto Voce’ at Theater J by