Refugee drama remains calm in ‘Sotto Voce’

Thursday, 12 October 2017, 10:11:40 PM. The Nilo Cruz play cleverly weaves border issues across decades and hemispheres.

refugee-drama-remains-calm-in-sotto-voce photo 1
Brigid Cleary and Andrés C. Talero in Nilo Cruz’s “Sotto Voce” at Theater J. (C. Stanley)

In 1939, nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees on the SS St. Louis were denied entry to Cuba and the United States; instead they were forced back to Europe and the Nazis. That’s the historical backdrop of Nilo Cruz’s “Sotto Voce,” a quiet drama that could easily have been a roar of resentment, but instead is a pensive waltz with ghosts.

Theater J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr made an early choice of Cruz’s play after the Trump administration’s initial travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries; inflamed political debates over refugees and immigration find a subtle counterpoint here. “Sotto Voce” is a delicate literary excursion in which a young Cuban writer seeks out an aging German writer who lives in New York. Both writers have ties to the St. Louis.

Cruz tiptoes toward his subject, which gives the show a slow windup. Saquiel Rafaeli, the Cuban Jewish writer clad in black, writes to the elusive (and non-Jewish) Bemadette Kahn. Then he emails. Then he calls. Bemadette does not want her solitude breached. And she does not want to remember the Jewish lover she lost on the St. Louis.

Saquiel standing hopefully on the street outside Bemadette’s tony Manhattan apartment weirdly echoes the St. Louis searching for safe harbor. Director Jose Carrasquillo’s elegant production is alert to Cruz’s poetic effects; Tom Kamm’s sleek set manages to simultaneously evoke Bemadette’s refined, organized apartment while incorporating nautical details like ship’s railing and a window vaguely like a porthole. History whispers its way in.

refugee-drama-remains-calm-in-sotto-voce photo 2 Desiree Marie Velez and Brigid Cleary in “Sotto Voce.” (C. Stanley)

Brigid Cleary is incandescent as Bemadette: She’s ferociously protective when her privacy is threatened, but she has a latent girlish streak that gets vividly teased out by Saquiel’s persistent seductions. It’s hard to picture “Sotto Voce” working at all without a performer as resourceful and watchable as Cleary in the central role, for if the script has a flaw it’s that it can be theatrically static.

Cleary and Andrés C. Talero, who is youthful and gentlemanly as Saquiel, spend a lot of time talking into the middle distance as they speak their characters’ letters and phone conversations. It’s the essence of the play that the two aren’t in the same room together; that void leaves gaps of place and time and creates a giant canvas of memory and imagination that slowly gets filled in. The construction is clever, but the going can be wordy.

The show’s greatest jolt comes from its third character, Bemadette’s assistant and housekeeper Lucila (an appealingly direct Desiree Marie Velez). Lucila is from Colombia. She’d love to return for a visit, but she’s scared to let go of her perch in the United States. The voices are indeed heard softly in “Sotto Voce,” but you certainly empathize with their isolation each time a border clamps shut.

Sotto Voce By Nilo Cruz. Directed by Jose Carrasquillo. Lights, Christopher Annas-Lee; costumes, Ivania Stack; projections, Paul Deziel; sound design, Brendon Vierra. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Through Oct. 29 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. $39-$69. Call 202-777-3210 or visit

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