Five decades ago, Bemadette (Carmen Roman) traveled from her home in war-torn Germany to New York, where she waited in vain for her lover to join her. Since then, though she has written novels about life and relationships, she herself has long been isolated. Now, however, she is unexpectedly re-awakened by a young Cuban man, in Nilo Cruz’s compellingly lyrical and allusive "Sotto Voce," a “metaphysical love story” evocatively staged at Portland Stage Company, under the direction of Liz Diamond.
The stage and back wall conjure a breathtaking sea of deep indigo, studded with islands of low-lit lamps, classic furnishings, papers and books. The islands of writing table and ottoman are the house of homebound Bemadette, for whom the extent of her contact with the world comes in visits from her housekeeper Lucila (Anita Petry), herself an immigrant from Colombia. From across the stage, on an island stacked with books, come emails from young Cuban writer Saquiel (James Cusati-Moyer), who is obsessed with the story of Bemadette and her lover, whose immigration was long ago prevented when a ship bound from Germany to Cuba was refused landing.
Bemadette first resists but slowly opens to the charming and fiercely persistent Saquiel, who also angles himself into a relationship with Lucila. As the triangle deepens, the play meditates on loss, obsession, the urge to isolate and the urge to connect. “A stalker is someone who lives in the dark,” Lucila at first warns Bemadette about Saquiel. “And he’s obsessed with stealing other people’s light.” But the nature and behavior of light proves less predictable.
All three characters are separated from their homes by oceans, and PSC’s staging makes the psychic implications magically manifest. The set’s floor curves up slightly to the back wall, so that when Saquiel and Lucila meet out on the street, they step up as if into the very vault of earth, ocean, and night. Other striking moments of abstraction abound in the staging, as when Bemadette and Lucila move downstage to peer down at the street and Saquiel, whose character is actually placed upstage behind them, looking up. Beautiful use of projections conjures ambient clouds, sea, Central Park, Broadway’s lights in impressionistic blur.
Saquiel is interestingly ambiguous in his motivations, and the agile Cusati-Moyer makes him a compelling, charismatic enigma of manipulation and genuine affection, while Petry gives a vibrant performance of the outspoken Lucila, turning her inward adeptly as Saquiel comes closer. And as Bemadette, Roman’s long, elegant, expressive frame registers worlds of feeling as her careful composure softens, opens, thrills with the ardor of a much younger woman. Her reawakening is enrapturing.
Cruz takes on a challenge in having Bemadette and Saquiel communicate exclusively via phone and, more problematically, email. While the spirit and phrasing of their words unfolds in transporting fashion, making the actors say “send” at the end of each response gets old quickly, and sustains their distance rather than letting it dissolve. But overall, PSC’s production achieves richly moving payoff in the uncommon love that develops between them, at once sensuous and fascinatingly abstract, and the show’s success is a tribute to such a luminous harmony of writing, production design, and subtle, sensitive acting.
In so beautifully staging Cruz’s work, PSC takes on a work that poses questions without answering them, that dares to leave enigmas. Sotto Voce raises crucial and confounding questions about memory, displacement, and who gets to tell whose stories – but it does so in a gratifyingly low and gentle whisper, in neither black nor white, but silver-grey.
Sotto Voce, by Nilo Cruz | Directed by Liz Diamond | Produced by Portland Stage Company | Through Nov. 20 | Visit www.portlandstage.org.
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