Sonia Flew | Steppenwolf Theatre Company

WHEN Through 2/4: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM

WHERE Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted

PRICE $20-$65

INFO 312-335-1650

Melinda Lopez’s Sonia Flew begins as a warm valentine to ecumenical family values, detours into melodrama, takes another turn into war docu-drama, steps back in time to Castro’s revolution, and concludes with a pop-psychology truism: our secrets hurt us. If we could all just bare our souls more often, we’d be healed.

With all that going against it, as well as Jessica Thebus’s curiously schizophrenic direction and a stage design that almost buries what’s essentially a domestic memory play, it’s a wonder the show manages to be effective at all. But it is, at least at times, and much of the credit for that goes to three fine performances, one in the first act and two in the second.

In this midwest premiere Sandra Marquez plays the title role, a middle-aged Cuban-born mother of two and a public defender (a career choice you don’t hear much about) living in Minnesota with her husband, Daniel (Jeff Still). He’s a Jewish shrink whose father escaped Poland as a boy, just before Nazi occupation, then fought in World War II. Sonia was one of the thousands of children airlifted out of postrevolutionary Cuba during Operation Pedro Pan, a covert CIA effort intended, some say, to destabilize the Castro regime by separating parents from their children, who were sent to the United States. In Sonia’s case, she never saw her family again.

Yet somehow you’re to believe that Sonia has never discussed this defining chapter in her life with her teenage children. Just before the family’s half-Christmas, half-Hanukkah celebration in December 2001, her college-age son, Zak, announces a Very Special Holiday Surprise: he’s enlisted in the marines because of the September 11 attacks. His grandfather (Alan Wilder, channeling Jerry Stiller) supports his decision, his sister thinks he’s an idiot, and his father tries to see everyone’s point of view. But Sonia is operatically livid. Zak’s reasons for enlisting–he’s tired of American privilege, someone has to stand up for what’s right, we can’t let the “towel heads” push us around–are so programmatic it’s easy to see why his mother thinks he’s been brainwashed. The scene feels contrived, but Thebus has a good handle on the intricate overlapping dialogue, and Marquez wonderfully articulates Sonia’s quicksilver wit and rage, particularly against her husband and his annoying shrinkspeak.

It’s only in the flashback second act, set in Cuba in 1961, that Lopez’s script begins to find its thread. As the 15-year-old Sonia, Sandra Delgado is an arresting blend of girlish, mercurial narcissism, inchoate idealism, and rising fear: her university professor father (Wilder, much stronger than in the first act) is under the watchful eye of a neighbor and informer (Still, also more compelling). But this act belongs mostly to the astonishing Vilma Silva as Sonia’s stylish, outspoken mother, Pilar, who’s determined to save her daughter from the growing violence of the new Marxist state. Silva is hypnotic, a riveting blend of steely scheming and barely contained hysteria. She makes you feel in your gut what the stakes must be for all parents forced to make such a wrenching decision.

Fascinating plays have been written about the lingering effects of exile and the denial of exile; Lillian Garrett-Groag’s 1997 The Magic Fire, a semiautobiographical script about a family of Austrian Jews in Peron’s Argentina, comes to mind. But the result of Lopez’s frenzied efforts to cram in as many issues as possible–the push/pull mother-child relationship, the corrosive effect of revolutions, the enduring loneliness of those exiled from their homelands–is that none of them registers. And Thebus, who’s typically a sensitive and nuanced director, has made some oddly distancing choices: at least one scene containing an important plot development is staged on a platform high above the rest of the playing area. The frames around Stephanie Nelson’s sets (first a comfortable middle-class home, then a Havana apartment) become screens for Stephan Mazurek’s video projections of the sea and snow and other vaguely symbolic images when what the scenes need is specificity.

Perhaps most disheartening is Lopez’s apparent lack of curiosity about what current American military actions are doing to destroy families in the Middle East. She uses the conflict in Afghanistan (and by extension Iraq) mostly as an excuse for Sonia and her family to finally deal with her issues of abandonment, so that mother and son ultimately make peace with each other and with her tragic past. Lopez doesn’t seem to understand that while exile and separation from loved ones is usually temporary or a sad anomaly for Americans, they’re fast becoming the norm where there are U.S. boots on the ground.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.