BWW Review: Whispered Memories: SOTTO VOCE at Portland Stage
Nilo Cruz's latest work, Sotto Voce (2014), is a delicate, haunting, poetic memory play that whispers and lulls its way into the hidden recesses of memory, as it slowly, gently, but heartrendingly reveals the characters' past lives, hopes, and dreams. Portland Stage's production directed by Liz Diamond is richly evocative and pitch perfect in tone and execution.
Cruz's 100-minute drama centers on the gradually illuminated past of Bernadette Kahn, a reclusive German writer in her advanced years, living in New York, where she is sought out by a young Cuban student who is seeking to find his own connection to an episode in the past which links their histories - the ill-fated refugee ship M.S. St. Louis which fled Nazi Germany in 1939 bound for Cuba, but was turned back there and by the U.S., leaving its Jewish passengers to return to Europe where they met disparate fates. As writer and student's lives become intertwined in a platonic love story conducted via telephone and email, Bernadette finds that Saquiel's voice embodies a vast reservoir of memory. Lines between past and present blur and reality and dreams swirl together for the elusive, but dramatic final moment.
Cruz's play owes much to the magical realism of Gabriel García Marquez and Isabel Allende, but as a dramatist he also echoes Tennesse Williams' fragile world of memory in The Glass Menagerie. The action exists on several undulating planes of reality that blurs fact and fiction - appropriate for the writers at the heart of this tale. His dialogue is lyrical; his characters winning; his use of symbol and metaphor gracefully handled.
Liz Diamond directs with a deft touch maintaining the subtlety of the story and text and moving the three actors in and out of the memory and reality sequences adroitly. Anita Stewart's stunning set design aids in the transformation. With its deep blue skrim curving seamlessly into the floor of the interior space, which is dotted only by severAl Small groupings of elegant furniture and two giant piles of books (aptly suggesting the literary aspect, as well as other locations), there is a fluidity to the design that matches the play's lyricism. Solomon Weisbard's lighting design contributes greatly to the overall effect, isolating circles of warmly lit space floating in the vaster context of the nebulous l'heure blue effect. So, too, does Kate Marvin's sound design provide an understated context for the action, heightening the element of mystery and remembrance? Fabian F. Aguilar's costumes nicely capture both character and period.
The three-person cast finds the music in the drama. Carmen Roman is outstanding as Bernadette - elegant, determinedly wearing the self-protective mask of reclusivity, but inwardly fragile, girlish, yearning for a connection to her lost love. James Cusati-Moyer endows Saquiel with a boyish charm and winning persistence, and as his unusual relationship with both Bernadette and her maid Lucila grows, he evokes the poetic reserves of his character. Anita Petry is a touching Lucila, insecure, seemingly practical, and yet nurtured by her own hidden dreams.
With a work that requires the utmost subtlety, Portland Stage has succeeded in this production in capturing the magic of Nilo Cruz's Sotto Voce. Like the soft whispers evoked by the title, the drama proves stirs and memorable.
Photos courtesy Portland Stage, Aaron Flacke, photographer
Sotto Voce runs from November 1 - 20, 2016, at Portland Stage, 25 Forest Ave., Portland, ME www.portlandstage.org 207-774-0465