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THEATER REVIEW

The pull of duty, separation link past and present

In 'Sonia Flew,' a woman struggles with memories of Cuba and aftermath of Sept. 11.

September 18, 2006|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

She turns her back to her family, shutting out their entreaties to return to the dinner table. The family isn't what she wants to block out, of course; she wants to shut off the pain that is rushing back into her life. Yet there she stands, frozen in a gesture that separates her from her children, husband and father-in-law -- the people she least wants to lose.

The early minutes of "Sonia Flew," at Laguna Playhouse, quickly build to this striking image. Then -- patiently, insightfully -- Melinda Lopez's play sorts through the tangled issues at the situation's core.

These involve the shock of 9/11, a son's desire to join the military and, further in the title character's past, the panicked 1960s underground operation that separated Cuban children from their parents, in some cases forever.

Lopez, a Boston-based actress and playwright, was born to Cuban parents who raised her in the States. Years later, she learned that a cousin had come to this country as one of about 14,000 Cuban children sent away during a particularly perilous period under the Castro government.

In the play, the separation anxiety of that era becomes bound up with the commingled worry and pride of U.S. families saying goodbye to loved ones headed to battlefronts after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The 2-year-old play, being given its West Coast premiere, feels overly schematic at times, the path from point A to point B and so on carved with too visible an effort. Yet with its evenhanded consideration of so many issues prevalent now in the U.S. dialogue, it is a singularly powerful response to this cultural moment. It will be revisited again next year in radio theater recordings by L.A. Theatre Works.

Lopez's title character was one of the Cuban children sent to the U.S. in Operation Pedro Pan, or Peter Pan. Put aboard a plane, 15-year-old Sonia flew from her parents, never to see them again.

In late 2001, she is a busy public defender in Minneapolis, married to a Jewish therapist, and mother to two smart, opinionated children for whom the future seems boundless. Then her son announces he's leaving college to enlist in the Marine Corps, and she panics.

She can't find the courage to explain her feelings, however. Stubbornly, she cuts off and keeps silent.

The second act travels back to Cuba in 1961 to tell us what Sonia can't. It's a jarring shift; the first act's performers play new roles, and the character relationships are initially hard to follow. Yet the story accumulates power, due in no small part to the delicately nuanced, emotionally true rendering it is given by director Juliette Carrillo and a committed cast. As the older and younger Sonias, Judith Delgado and Tanya Perez, respectively, delineate the heartbreak of separation and the willful, unreasonable anger that results.

As Sonia's mother, Marissa Chibas portrays bravery in the face of sacrifice. Myung Hee Cho's set and Lonnie Alcaraz's lighting help to convey moments of magic realism. And Sonia's tale becomes palpably, achingly resonant.

daryl.miller@latimes.com

*

`Sonia Flew'

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; also 7 p.m. Oct. 8

Ends: Oct. 15

Price: $30 to $65

Contact: (949) 497-2787 or www.LagunaPlayhouse.com

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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