First off, the last thing a mom should ask a nineteen-year-old young man hell-bent on joining the Marines in response to the 9/11 attacks is, “What do you know about how the world works?” And she certainly shouldn’t ask it with a world-weary air, making it clear that she is the one in the room who knows such things. Another suggestion: don’t follow it up by telling him, “You have such a limited understanding of these things.” But that’s just real-world advice. For an opening scene in Melinda Lopez’s play, Sonia Flew, at Wellesley Repertory Theatre through June 25, an exhibition of such motherly disdain is the perfect way to set a tone of conflict and move the action forward. As the Elliot Norton Award-winning play opens, Sonia (Mariela Lopez-Ponce, on the edge of a nervous breakdown), Zak’s mom, has conveniently forgotten that in her early 1960s teenage past, becoming involved with Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution seemed like the perfect antidote to her controlling parents, a way to provide her life with purpose and and a sense of being part of something bigger than herself. The adult Sonia never sees — or refuses to see — the parallels between her former teenage self, ready to join the Revolution, and her current teenage son, on a fast-track to the Marines as his way of avenging the 9/11 attacks.
This type of parallel comes up throughout the play, as we are shown in the first half a modern-day family grappling with the idea that the bright son who has just completed his freshman year of college now wants to go to war. I wanted to sit down at the kitchen table right along with the family and put forth the benefits that both Zak (played by Zach Georgian with stubbornness and a touch of glee as he hits one nerve after another) and the United States Armed Forces would reap if he entered the ROTC program, but it wasn’t my dialogue to tweak. In the name of creating dramatic tension, however, sending a braniac kid from a nice Jewish family off to put boots on the ground in the toughest branch of the service certainly works. (Playwright Lopez appeared earlier this Spring in Grand Concourse at SpeakEasy Stage in Boston.)
The second half of the play brings us to 1960s Cuba, where a teen-age Sonia (Christine de Jesus Ahsan, with innocence verging on adult understanding) is flattered by the attention of a slimy, opportunistic soldier (Woody Gaul). The young Sonia is too naive to comprehend his underlying motives, which turn out to be more about meeting his recruitment quota of teens to send to “camp” than a true interest in young Sonia’s future. Sonia is lately at odds with her parents, and more and more interested in what her role could be in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. She doesn’t comprehend that the Revolution is leading to a dictatorship. Her professor father does, however, but pretends that hunkering down and living quietly is the solution, even though he just saw ten of his colleagues marched out of the university in chains and taken to God only knows where. Only the mom sees it all plain as truth: life as her family has known it in Cuba is over, and she must get her daughter out. As in right now. Even when the last words her daughter tells her are “I do not forgive you. I will never forgive you.”
Truly, I was at the edge of my seat for the entire running time of 2 1/2 hours, including intermission. The thought of anything happening to Zak haunted me to the very end of the play. The idea that the young Sonia was teetering on a wire on which she never asked to step, and on which she couldn’t remain balanced, where landing on one side meant narrow or no choices, while ending up on the other side meant freedom with its incredibly high price, kept me spellbound. The bitterness of the adult Sonia as she refused to don the mantle of the strong, unflappable, unconditionally supportive mother and wife kept me yearning for her — redemption? Epiphany? Comeuppance? Rescue? I wasn’t sure, but had to find out which way Lopez would send it.
Sonia’s husband Daniel is played by Woody Gaul (Wellesley Repertory Theatre’s Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight) with Rock-of-Gibraltar fortitude combined with mensch-like stability and decency. He’s the reassuring voice that guides his daughter through the family crisis with, “We’re not splitting up. This family doesn’t do that. We don’t.” Even when he hurls tough truths at his wife about her own behavior, there’s an undercurrent in his very being of the idea of forever. We’re not splitting up. We don’t do that. We won’t.
It’s always good to see Nancy Tutunjian Berger onstage (she appeared earlier this Spring in Enchanted April at The Center for Arts in Natick). As family friend Nina, Berger’s warmth and vulnerability allows us to see the meaning of family closeness during tough times on an island that is about to become virtually inescapable.