BWW Review: SONIA FLEW IS POIGNANT TALE OF FAMILY AND SACRIFICE at Powerstories Theatre
Though I was fighting back the tears, the unexpected closure of the first act triggered wracking sobs from an audience member. That is how relatable, believable, and compelling the performance of Sonia Flew at Powerstories was on opening night.
Set alternatively against the backdrop of the post-9/11 United States and the Cuban Revolution, expertly directed by Melody Craven, Sonia Flew is ultimately a story about family and sacrifice. The play stars a cast of six deftly dual-playing roles. In Act one, Post-911, adult Sonia's world turns upside down. She's spent decades keeping memories of her life in Cuba at bay. She assimilated into America, married a Jewish man, and became a public defender in Minnesota, raising a son and a daughter.
On Christmas Eve, during a dinner celebrating their Jewish faith, her young son Zak announces he is giving up college, joining the Army to fight for his country, and she can't prevent it from happening. Though she refuses to admit it, his leaving to fight in Afghanistan elicits the same sense of abandonment she felt as a teenager in Cuba.
Young Sonia is too young to understand that she is one of Cuba's Peter Pan children-one of the thousands who was smuggled out of Cuba to fly to the United States after the Communist takeover. Her parents make the heart-wrenching decision to protect her from communist rule by sending her to the U.S. temporarily "to study on a scholarship." Temporary becomes permanent, and for Sonia, a year of separation becomes a lifetime that defines her.
The juxtaposition of 9/11 and the threat of the Communist takeover is one of the play's many highlights. The actions in Act Two explain Sonia's troubling reaction to her son's news in Act One.
"I will never forgive you" are five words that haunt Sonia as both a daughter and a mother.
To say that Fralia Colon was magnificent as the outspoken, yet broken Sonia still does not do justice to her performance. When adult Sonia refuses to recite a religious prayer, you can see it symbolizes much more than stubbornness. When she struggles to breathe, and her husband tries to help her, her panic attack had me trying to breathe for her. Though Sonia insists Cuba is in her past and never speaks of it, it weighs on her relationship with her husband and children; it is easy to see how much it torments her. Fralia's most powerful moments as Sonia are her conversation with Zak when leaving his home to become a Marine, and any moment she is alone to recall stories in the spotlight.
Jim Bowe masterfully plays Sonia's beleaguered therapist husband, Daniel. Daniel loves Sonia but is being pushed to the brink with her stubborn refusal to accept their son's decision. Watching Daniel helplessly watch his wife fall apart was heart-breaking. After an argument, when Sam tells her that he doesn't know when he's coming back, I wanted Sonia to stop him from going.
As Daniel's father Sam, Paul Crane is fun to watch. He loves his son, daughter-in-law, granddaughter, and supports his grandson's wish to join the military as he was a soldier too. He offers a firm sense of family and tradition.
As Zak, Drew Eberhard shows us a young man made to feel powerless by the 9/11 attacks. He is looking to take back control the only way he knows how - fighting for his country. Drew authentically conveys Zak's frustration of not being understood and his pain at having no support from his mother. In the last moment, before he goes, he hesitates at the door waiting for Sonia to say something; his sad expression says more than his words. He leaves, accepting that he is unforgiven for following his beliefs.
Later, a set-piece transforms into a jeep scene in Afghanistan with Zak and the dog-loving Nina (Joie Marsh), a fellow soldier. What I thought was to be a fun look at Zak's military life takes a dark turn. Sonia Flew utilizes extraordinary sound and lighting effects designed by Rachel Tew and Devan Kelty; the impact is jarring and gut-wrenching.
Jessica Watzman is utterly convincing as the sardonic teen daughter Jen and sister to Zak. Jen and Zak's sparring was a funny moment in the play. When Zak reveals his plan, Jen shows sincere concern for her brother, convinced he is brainwashed.
In the second act, the scene switches to Cuba in 1961. Fralia transforms entirely to play Marta, a housekeeper to Pilar, Orfreo, and Sonia, whose husband Castro's henchmen are questioning. She denies knowing why her husband was taken away. She carries a secret that can both destroy herself and the family whom she resides. It can also save Pilar and Orfreo's daughter Sonia, who has become enamored with serving her country as a teacher in the Providence.
Joie is Pilar, a mother who would cross the ocean for her daughter. She is not one to bow down to the regime but is worried her 15-year-old daughter Sonia (Jessica) has caught the eye and is in danger from Tito, one of Castro's men (Jim). Joie brings grace and depth to Pilar, a mother choosing to give her daughter up to save her.
Paul plays Pilar's husband Orfeo, a teacher who toes the line as he's seen other teachers removed from his school in chains. A contrast in character - as he shows how much he loves his wife and daughter, we see but one physical incident with his wife, yet it gives the feeling that he is not above violence. He is distraught to give up his daughter, but knows peril is coming; her safety supercedes everything.
Jessica is exceptional as young Sonia, utterly oblivious to the dangers that she wants to dive headfirst into. Her parents do their best to protect her, but she is defiant. When she is forced to leave Cuba for America, her last words to her parents echo what she will tell her son, "I will never forgive you."
Drew is adorable as young Sonia's love interest Jose. Their innocent kiss and his enjoyment of her dance routine was a sweet, lighthearted moment in an otherwise serious performance.
Jim, as Tito is unsettling, like the person that smiles to your face as he is stabbing you in the back. His interest in young Sonia makes me feel uneasy, that if she goes with him, something untoward will happen. I suspect Pilar and Marta sense it too, and that is another reason she is sent away for her protection from not only the regime, but Tito's grasp.
Like Lucas Estevez makes the costumes perfectly match the decade, Devan Kelty takes every little detail into account of the beautiful Sonia Flew set - from the beautiful rotating kitchen, children's photos, pans on walls to the Cuban flag to the purse hanging from the dining room chair. Before the start of the play, I heard patrons discussing how amazing it is how so much can fit so perfectly on to a small stage without looking crowded.
The return to the present for the final moments of the play gives unexpected, but satisfactory closure. I recommend anyone looking for riveting, truthful theatre take this journey with Sonia Flew.