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BWW Review: SECRET THINGS at 1st Stage

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Strong cast can't make up for weak script in season-opening production

SECRET THINGS by Elaine Romero examines faith and human connection - today and through generations. A very sure and charismatic cast and an intriguing history of the hidden Jewish roots in communities of the U.S. Southwest can't quite make up for a problematic script.

BWW Review: SECRET THINGS at 1st Stage
Alina Collins Maldonado (left) and Luis Alberto González

A driven, award-winning journalist receives an intriguing anonymous tip about Mexican-Americans with generations of hidden Jewish roots. She delves into the history of Crypto-Jews, a community who, after fleeing persecution in first Spain then Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries, secretly adhered to their Sephardic Jewish practices while publicly converting to Catholicism rather than risk expulsion once again. Delia is eager to return to her native town in New Mexico to investigate. The reporting job has the added bonus of leaving behind her complicated relationship with her ex-boyfriend (who is also her insistent and pushy editor).

In New Mexico, Delia reaches out to her estranged family and also meets a compelling Crypto-Jew who urges her to dig deeper into questions of belief and personal history. As she reports the story, the journalist begins to wonder if she shares these roots. Delia is haunted by mysterious dreams - visits to the mystical Sephardia - that push her forward in her quest.

The production, which opens the 2021-2022 season at 1st Stage, features an exceptionally strong cast. The sureness, experience and professionalism of the five actors help overcome the weak script. Alina Collins Maldonado as Delia is the engine that propels the two-hour production. Delia is a determined and ambitious journalist who initially thinks little of her religion, her ties to her family, or her relationship with her ex. But the trip back to her native New Mexico opens her to love and faith; Maldonado's energy and depth make this transformation believable.

Lawrence Redmond, in the dual role of Delia's father and the rabbi, is another standout. He brings steadiness and gravitas to the roles, but he is unafraid to mine the lighter moments. Redmond's facial expressions alone are scene-stealers as the rabbi listens to Abel question and gush and confess his feelings.

Luz Nicolas, (Mother/Aunt) is a grounded and practical no-nonsense mother who stands as a pillar of the Catholic Church and keeps rigid boundaries. But it is as an ethereal and mysterious aunt in the more fantastical scenes that Nicolas does her most memorable work. Nicolas easily inhabits the play's magical realism, powering the scenes in Sephardia.

Matthew Sparacino as Ben, the selfish, two-timing boss and boyfriend, stands as a brash and boorish contrast to Luis Alberto González's quieter yet persistent Abel who is committed to bringing the history of the Crypto-Jews to light and to earnestly pursuing his mysterious connection to Delia.

BWW Review: SECRET THINGS at 1st Stage
(L to R) Lawrence Redmond, Luz Nicolas and Matthew Sparacino

Yet even the talent and energy of the cast can't dispel the inherent problems of the text - the script is repetitive and lacks focus. This is a story that touches on faith, familial and romantic love, history, empowerment and discovery - these themes are all interesting rich veins to explore in a play but in Secret Things it's too little of any one thing.

The play brings forth the fascinating history of Crypto-Jews in the American Southwest. Although there is reference to frustrations of reclaiming their Jewish ties, the playwright doesn't adequately describe the modern-day stakes of what it means to the contemporary generation of Crypto-Jews to examine their roots in both Judaism and Catholicism to find belief and belonging.

The text also shifts between more literal storytelling and the magical realism of Sephardia where the answers to the "secret things" may be discovered. But while the shift to Sephardia could provide heightened drama and atmosphere it is instead a lot of muddled metaphors. With so many open questions to try to resolve the audience is left confused.

Strong direction could have helped overcome some of the script's limitations, but there isn't a clear vision with Alex Levy's production. Pacing is a particular problem - not because of the interactions among the actors but because there is lots of stage business and busy-ness that needlessly slows the unfolding story. The time it takes to move a bench (once again) or hang some peppers (once again) can leave an audience antsy - especially since the nearly two-hour production runs without an intermission.

Jessica Cancino's scenic design features a spare, wooden set easily serving as a city apartment, New Mexican home or the dream-like Sephardia. The set's multiple levels provide great opportunities for flow and movement. Alex Casillas' lights filter through loosely woven cloth that frames the set, giving a sense of hidden mysteries from the outset. The lighting effectively transitions the audience from the contemporary moments to magical elements. Ethan Balis' sound design ranging from subtle whispers to soaring music supports these shifts. Costume designer Kelsey Hunt deftly mixes contemporary pieces with key traditional items to shift through the generations.

Secret Things has a lot of things going for it - a terrific cast at the very top of that list - but it falls frustratingly short of its promise.

Running Time: 1:55 without intermission

SECRET THINGS by Elaine Romero is produced by 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road in Tysons, VA 22102. The in-person production runs through December 12. To purchase tickets or for performance times, COVID-19 attendance policies, and further information visit the company's website.

SECRET THINGS is directed by Alex Levy. The production features Scenic Design by Jessica Cancino, Costume Design by Kelsey Hunt, Lighting Design by Alex Casillas, Sound Design by Ethan Balis, and Properties Design by George Thomas Wang. The production team also includes Stage Manager Kristen Parker and Assistant Director/Movement Nicole Maneffa.

Photo Credits: Teresa Castracane


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