“Sotto Voce,” the first play of Theater J’s 2017-2018 season, packed a weighty punch. Running from Oct. 3-29 at the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center of Washington D.C., the play offered a poignant riff on a timeless theme: the power of love and memory and their ability to transcend time.
Written by Nilo Cruz and set in the year 2000, “Sotto Voce” revolves around the traumatizing and life-changing events of World War II and the Holocaust. The main character, a non-Jewish German woman named Bernadette, was once a successful author. Now in her early 80s, she suffers from agoraphobia and has not left her New York City apartment for years. Her only outlet to the outside world is her telephone, computer, and her feisty Colombian maid Lucilla.
One day, Bernadette gets a call from a young student from Cuba, Saquiel, to ask her about Ari Strauss, an old lover from Berlin who was on board the doomed S.S. St. Louis ship. The S.S. St Louis was a German ocean liner that set off in 1939 on a voyage to Cuba and then Miami, Florida, to find refuge for over 900 German Jewish refugees. Saquiel is in New York on a student visa in order to research the St. Louis to fulfill his grandfather’s dream of telling the story of the passengers from the St Louis and receive apologies from Cuba and the U.S. for refusing entry to the refugees — effectively sending them to die back in Europe.
Bernadette immediately ends the conversation and asks the student to not contact her further, but he persists, eventually winning over both Bernadette and her maid with his charm and his mission.
While humorous and witty at times, the underlying message of the play is one of regret and lost love. Bernadette pines over the loss of her Jewish lover at the hands of the Nazis, while Lucilla pines for her old life in her native Colombia, hating the coldness of America. Even Saquiel is in mourning for both the victims of the St. Louis as well as his own ability to lead a normal life as a Jewish man in Cuba without feeling haunted by the tragedy.
“Sotto Voce” captures the fascinating vantage point of a German family during the Holocaust and their relationship with the Jewish community. The show also touches upon modern-day issues with refugees and borders, showing how history repeats itself.
Ultimately, the narrative ends with Saquiel stuck in Cuba, having overstayed his visa, while Bernadette prepares to visit him there to finally fulfill her promise to Ari Strauss. It is a strong and powerful ending to a wonderful and complex play.
By Jackie Feldman
Jackie Feldman is a young professional living and working in Washington, D.C. She runs the group “Sephardic Jews in DC,” which hosts events in the metro DC area that celebrate Sephardic culture, religious tradition, and customs. She also has her own food blog that features a healthier spin on many traditional Jewish and Sephardic recipes: https://healthysephardiccooking.wordpress.com/.