Performance Network's "Sonia Flew" soars with grace and power
photo by Jude Walton | Courtesy of Performance Network
There are few things more heartbreaking than watching parents make an agonizing decision about their child’s future when there are nothing but terrible options available. Send a child away — on her own and against her will — from all that she knows and loves, in order to give her a chance at a life not lived in fear? Or stay together as a family while living under the thumb of a dangerous, repressive regime?
That’s the impossible choice facing the parents of the title character of Melinda Lopez’s “Sonia Flew,” now playing at Performance Network. Living in Cuba in 1961, shortly after Castro’s rise to power, Pilar (Sarab Kamoo) and Orfeo (Will David Young) are celebrating daughter Sonia’s (Christina L. Flynn) 15th birthday when one of Orfeo’s colleagues at the university is publicly executed at a rally. Young girls, meanwhile, are being sent out to the country to promote literacy programs — though suspicions about the girls’ safety, and when they’d really return, make parents willing to take any risk to get their children out of the country.
In Sonia’s case, she fights leaving, and vows that she’ll never forgive her parents for sending her away. But over time, Sonia swallows her anguish and makes a life for herself in America, where we first meet her at the play’s start. It’s nearly Christmas in 2001, and Sonia (Milica Govich) is married to a Jewish man, Daniel (Jon Bennett), and has a teen daughter, Jen (Flynn), and a son, Zak (Russ Schwartz), who’s in college. In the wake of 9/11 — a strange, somber, frenetic time that the play skillfully manages to capture and resurrect — Zak decides to enlist, which terrifies and enrages Sonia, and forces her to face the pain she’d so neatly tucked away years before.
Other than depicting two generations of a family in crisis, the link between the two narratives is a little tenuous, but both stories have such emotional power that this is easy to overlook. And while Sonia’s occasional asides in the first act provide information that we need — sometimes in a beautiful way, as per a discussion about the Peter Pan story — their occasional placement in the middle of scenes feels clumsy, and director David Wolber may have been well-advised to add a few seconds more of a pause when shifting between the play’s action and these direct addresses.
But these are small qualms about an otherwise gripping show that held me rapt throughout its two-hour run-time. Each narrative could have supported an entire play, so rich are they with dramatic tension and conflict; to see them both in the course of an evening is an emotional, high-impact experience. (Indeed, Lopez’s script squashes things together a little too hastily at times, but again, this doesn’t mar the show too significantly.)
“Sonia”’s cast is uniformly impressive, though for me, the women are the stars. On opening night, Kamoo quite simply ripped my heart out as a mother who desperately seeks safety and freedom for her child; Govich skillfully captures the fury and anxiety of a protective mother who, upon raising her son to adulthood, learns that he will be putting himself in harm’s way; and Flynn gets her chance to shine late in the second act, when young, confused Sonia is suddenly forced to pack and leave her childhood home.
Monika Essen’s set design allows for an easy transition between acts, providing a backdrop that's a home both in contemporary Minnesota and ‘60s era Cuba. Mary Copenhagen’s costumes subtly re-inforce setting and character details, while Dan Walker’s lighting helps to establish the play's additional locales (a Cuban beach, an airport, and a cemetery).
With “Sonia,” the Network has done what, in its very best moments, it does: it’s made a memorable, wholly transporting production from a pretty good script — which is a tribute to both Wolber’s thoughtful direction and the cast’s abilities as versatile performers.