When one speaks “sotto voce,” one speaks in a softer, lower tone for emphasis or perhaps to give the impression of an involuntary utterance of truth which may shock or antagonize. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics, 2003), is revealing great truths through undercurrents and whisperings of poignant and impossible love in the world premiere of Sotto Voce. The play, which he also directed, is being performed at Theater for the New City until March 9.
As the play opens, we hear a foghorn and see two separate scenes that are going on simultaneously, one from the past and one in the present. The scene from the past involves memory and imagination. The scene in the present is of uncompromising reality. In the present we see Bemadette, a the renowned German-born writer, composing her work center stage at her desk in her apartment in New York City. A voiceover narration of Bemadette’s rich and beautiful prose describing the scene she has written makes the prose alive. We see a sister and her brother, the Strausses, walking happily on their way toward the ship they will soon board on their way out of Germany to Cuba. Along with 937 other Jewish refugees they are seeking asylum from Hitler’s Germany. The year is 1939, The ship is the ill-fated SS St. Louis.
The tragedy of the St. Louis is one of the more egregious examples of politics, human profiteering and discrimination involving democratic countries to come out of the pre-WWII years. After the ship made it to the alleged place of asylum, the refugees never were allowed into Cuba. They sought help from Canada and the U.S. but were denied immigration status and turned away. After voyages to the Florida coast and back to Cuba, they were running out of supplies. The ship was forced to return to Europe. Belgium, France, England and Holland agreed to take in the refugees. Of them, 254 died when the European countries were occupied by the Nazis (England excepted). Of these 254, many were sent to the camps. The St. Louis incident is integral to Sotto Voce. How Cruz uses it to evoke wonderful themes about memory, lost love, regret, reconciliation and rebirth is poetic and illuminating.
As Cruz develops the play, he intertwines memory, imagination and current reality to tell the story of Bemadette. Her lover was Strauss, who with his sister, were refugees on the St. Louis. Bemadette cannot deal with past regrets about her lover who died in the camps. Her stability and her enjoyment of the present have been warped by pain. When we meet Bemadette (an astounding and emotionally taut performance by Franca Sofia Barchiesi), we recognize she is a dried husk. Guilt has sucked out the choicest portions of her lifeblood. In her attempt to reconcile the past, she writes, but it is poor recompense and she is haunted by nightmares and ghosts.
Then a life-changing event occurs. It helps her expiate the sadness and desolation that has kept her pinned to the past in repeated agonizing remembrances. The catalyst comes in a beautiful form, a Cuban college student, Saquiel (an intense and provocative Andhy Mendez) who has read her writings and who shares a bond with her. His grandfather’s sister was on the St. Louis and was killed in the Holocaust. In seeking out Bemadette, he is looking for his past and wanting to understand the sources of the beauty of her writings and her own history that she would prefer to nullify but cannot.
An ethereal and platonic relationship via phone and email develops between Bemadette and Saquiel, fueled by an intermediary, Bemadette’s maid Lucila (an excellent Arielle Jacobs). The student and the writer help one another, even though they do not physically see each other but instead imagine they are together. It is through their loving, healthful relationship and their probing discussions that we discover the mysteries of Bemadette’s horrific regrets and misery about her Jewish lover. It is through Saquiel’s perseverance, love and appreciation of Bemadette’s artistry and history that she is able to reconcile her memories with the present realities. By the play’s conclusion Saquiel and Bemadette are transported to a new understanding of themselves and what they are willing to sacrifice to gain peace and hope.
In Sotto Voce Nilo Cruz has created a sumptuous work of art, integrating poetic forms within the structure of the plot to fuel the dialogue and characterizations. He does this with beauty and grace that convey a wistfulness and longing for health and wholeness which both characters are on their way to achieving by the play’s end. Most importantly, Cruz reminds us of the power of human relationships to heal. It is a power that transcends the limitations of time and space and age differences. If it is allowed to develop and grow, one may receive the energy to create new dreams to replace those lost to time and regret.