Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Once upon a time, three young adults left home for good: the first fled Nazi-occupied Poland to live with relatives in the United States; the third answered a call within himself to serve his country after 9/11; and fifteen-year-old Sonia touched down alone in Miami shortly before the Bay of Pigs Invasion rocked her home country of Cuba. Melinda Lopez's complex and evocative Sonia Flew, a co-production now at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, examines the path we expect our lives to follow, how outside forces can warp and sever that trajectory, and what happens in the aftermath. The play's internally and externally turbulent struggles of balancing opposing family and national identities is made all too palpable by David Wolber's marvelous direction and the work of a pitch-perfect cast.

In the late 2001 of the first act, adult Sonia (Milica Govich) is in the throes of an acute but nonspecific anxiety, which finds a legitimate, full-throttle outlet when her son (Russ Schwartz) announces that he has dropped out of college in order to join the Marines. Her inability to come to terms with his news blows up another tenuous situation: the apparently un-religious family's rare observance of Shabbat, in which it falls upon Catholic-born Sonia to recite the blessing. As Zak, Schwartz displays sides of conviction and adult behavior as well as the petulant self-righteousness that seems to prevent his mother from trusting his decision making. Govich's anger is solidly based in a pleading incapacity to cope, and Jon Bennett as Sonia's husband gives a subtle example of a troubled marriage eroding against both partners' wills.

Relatively minor changes at intermission to Monika Essen's set and Daniel C. Walker's lighting transform the cool, upscale interior of 2001 Minneapolis to an oven-hot April home in 1961 Havana, and the electrically humming dynamic of the first-act family is transformed through double casting into that of young Sonia (Christina L. Flynn). Her parents, played with cagey assertion by Will David Young and Sarab Kamoo, note Sonia's naive conviction in Castro and his regime and quickly navigate their own actions and responses in the hope of carving out a future and safety for the family. Their story — deciding when and whether to go along with an oppressive government they clearly hate and fear, and choosing between a permanent ideological rift with Sonia or a shorter geographical one — is morally ambiguous and heart-wrenching, played with believable swiftness by a pair of exceptional performers. Flynn's turn as teenage Sonia is often darling and always honest, a staggering reminder of a child's inability to recognize something is wrong with her world from her place inside it.

Lopez deftly highlights the parallels between the stories, especially in monologues delivered directly to the audience, but what the characters tell us simply can't compare to what they show so richly within the scene. Sonia's stunted relationship with forgiveness is a major theme, as is the nature of sacrifice and whose duty it is to make it. One particularly fascinating perspective is how their respective pasts inform the belief systems of present-day Sonia and her Purple Heart–decorated father-in-law (Young, nailing the uncomfortable stoicism of a World War II veteran) compared with the comparatively commonplace lives of the others in the family; whether the varying points of view are wise or naive, damaged or prescient, is left up to interpretation.

The two chronologies of Sonia Flew could not look and feel more different, but for the same cast and consistent plaintive sound design by Phil Powers, and yet they're tonally bridged by the shared sense of expectations dashed. If the world were good or fair, we would each set out what we'd like to accomplish and achieve it without impediment. Instead, the world we live in is full of obstacles far beyond our control or even our immediate reach — by way of war calling a young man who would otherwise have continued in college, or political unrest that leads a young woman's parents to firmly believe she will be better off removed from her family and everything she holds dear. This production presents extreme examples of the outside world interfering in unexpected ways, but it is gripping and eminently relatable because at its base are families whose difficulties and disagreements, and the underlying love that blasts them on high, have a universal feel.


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