Milica Govich and Sarab Kamoo in "Sonia Flew" at Performance Network Theatre. Photo: Jude Walton

Powerful season opener at the Network

By Donald V. Calamia

Who we are today is the cumulative result of all of our prior life experiences - the good, the tragic and the mundane. While much of our past is easily discussed with friends and loved ones, each of us has a painful episode we bury deep inside and never share. But what happens when current-day events and hurtful memories collide, and the emotional result threatens to shatter your family?

Such is the situation a Cuban-American immigrant, wife and mother faces in the excellent "Sonia Flew" at Performance Network Theatre in Ann Arbor.

In the months following the tragedy of 9/11, Sonia is preparing a traditional Shabbos dinner to celebrate the arrival of her Jewish father-in-law for the Hanukah and Christmas holidays. What should have been a happy, festive occasion is anything but when her son, Zak, informs his mother that he's decided to quit college and join the Marines to help defend his country. Sonia's subsequent refusal to participate in the dinner and her vitriolic anger towards Zak's announcement stun the family. And her continued - and unexplained - resistance eventually drives everyone out of the house. "I don't know you anymore," her confused husband, Daniel, tells her as he's about to leave with the rest of the family.

And thanks to a past his wife has kept mostly secret, there's no way he could know that Sonia's seemingly unreasonable position has its roots in Cuba 40 years earlier in the aftermath of Fidel Castro's takeover of that country.

Except for a few clues slyly placed by author Melinda Lopez throughout the first act, there's little to prepare the audience for the revelations to come in Act 2 - little of which will be revealed here. But it's sufficient to say that the emotional fireworks of Act 1 give way to a heart-wrenching, gut-punching tale after intermission. And if there's a lesson to be learned here, there are two: It's never easy to give up your child for the greater good; and never say anything in anger today that you'll regret tomorrow.

From the moment the play begins, Lopez's dialogue sparkles, as casual conversations and heated exchanges alike ring true. And her story unfolds without unnecessary clutter. (A few brief "interludes," however, are a bit intrusive and don't always add much to the plot.)

Most unique, though, is the challenge she issues to directors and actors alike: Each actor plays one character in the first act and someone different in the second. And not surprisingly, director David Wolber and his first-rate troupe of actors respond to it with superb performances from start to finish.

That's particularly true of the three women, who - for the most part - are given far more substance to work with by the playwright than their male counterparts.

Milica Govich, as the adult Sonia, carries the weight in the show's first half as a mother blindsided by the fear of losing a son in a war she doesn't believe in. Although it's often a loud and stormy performance, Govich is quite skillful at releasing Sonia's roller coaster of emotions, the result of which is a mother whose pain is totally believable - despite the fact we haven't a clue what's driving her behavior.

By contrast, Sarab Kamoo gives a quieter, but equally gripping performance throughout Act 2. As Sonia's mother in Cuba, Pilar willingly makes a series of tough and potentially harmful decisions to ensure the safety of her daughter. Here, Kamoo's body language says more than her words often do!

And fresh from three years at the Hilberry Theatre, Christina L. Flynn makes her Performance Network debut as daughter Jen in Act 1. But it's as Young Sonia in Act 2 where she demonstrates the chops fans of her previous work have come to expect from her. Her final scenes will rip out whatever is left of your already bleeding heart.

Not to be out shined, Russ Schwartz is fine as Zak and Jose, while Jon Bennett is especially noteworthy as Cuban neighbor and Communist snitch Tito. (An especially interesting conversation broke out after the show regarding Tito and Bennett's perfectly nuanced performance. Tito is a slimy character you should love to hate - but can't, because you soon realize he's figured out how to work the corrupt system to his advantage to save not only his life, but possibly the lives of others he cares about - such as Sonia. And that's the way Bennett - with a much-talked-about mustache - plays him.)

And, as expected, Will David Young is superb as grandfather Sam and Sonia's father, Orfeo.

The set by Monika Essen looks a little too Spanish for Act 1's Minneapolis circa 2001, but it's spot-on perfect for Cuba in 1961. And lights by Daniel C. Walker serve the show well, especially the water effect that opens and closes the performance.

"Sonia Flew" is a co-production of Performance Network Theatre and The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company in West Bloomfield, where it will move Dec. 8 for a three-week run.

REVIEW:

'Sonia Flew'

Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through Oct. 17. $22-$41. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org

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