‘Sotto Voce’ a still, small voice at Theater J

Brigid Cleary and Andrés C. Talero in Nilo Cruz’s “Sotto Voce,” at Theater J through Oct. 29. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

The last ship to leave Nazi Germany in 1939 carried 937 passengers on a voyage to Cuba, just as Europe was being overtaken by Hitler’s advancing army. The S.S. St. Louis arrived in the Havana harbor, where only 28 passengers were allowed to disembark. The rest remained at sea, turned away from Cuba and then the United States, only to return to Europe where 254 of those refugees perished in the Holocaust.

This back story sets the scene for Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz’s “Sotto Voce,” the season opener at Theater J, at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, that touches on the Cuban-Jewish experience while the shadow of the world refugee crisis lingers.

Set at the turn of the millennium, “Sotto Voce” is an unusual love story in which the principals don’t meet face to face. German matriarch Bemadette lives in a New York City high rise that she never leaves, comfortably ensconced in her upscale penthouse with a view of the park. A successful novelist, Bemedette writes and banters with her housekeeper, Lucila. Into this tightly defined universe, Saquiel turns up and turns her well-defined world upside down.

A Cuban student researching the histories of the passengers of the St. Louis, Saquiel seeks to interview Bemedette about her long ago relationship with a Jewish passenger on the ship, Ariel Strauss. An air of mystery surrounds Bemedette’s long past love affair and whether she has any information that will be of interest to this research. They correspond via email, he addressing her as “Dear Writer,” she, him as “Dear Student,” and via voicemail messages, spoken by the actors onstage.

Brigid Cleary, with her patrician air and aquiline nose, carries herself with impeccable grace as Bemadette. Her German accent, ageless smile and excitable demeanor when faced with bad or pushy manners are thoughtfully played.

As Saquiel, Andres Talero cuts a handsome figure in his slim black jeans and black leather jacket. Talero gives his character a slightly bad-boy undertone, one that both women, the older Bemadette and the younger Lucila can’t resist.

In the May-December phone romance, Cruz demonstrates how important language is in the game of attraction. As Lucila, Desiree Marie Velez is both subservient and bold, astutely understanding her boss’s foibles and demands and sharing intimate secrets and playfully teasing her. It’s a friendship, but Bemadette remains boss.

Director Jose Carrasquillo is no stranger to Theater J; his previous credits including “After the Fall” and “The Body of An American.” Cruz’s play, though, is a challenge. It takes place in a single room, Bemadette’s living room.

Frequently, the outsider Saquiel communicates via phone or email and on a stage with no props, just a desk and a few chairs, Carrasquillo places the actor in varying spots, making these transitions to technological conversations via phone or email harder to discern and squelching the flow. Cruz is neither a naturalistic nor realistic playwright; thus it seems that a little more imagination in enlivening these distinct conversations could assist in the flow of what is, at times, a clunky evening.

While the story carries its own intrigue, the larger issue of immigration policy — during World War II and today — sometimes takes a back seat. Saquiel suffers from a U.S. immigration regulation that prohibits him from reentering the country. Lucila, too, lives under the looming specter of tightened immigration policies. Playwright Cruz has both these characters express their disappointment and discouragement but, unlike those immigrants 58 years ago on the St. Louis, neither returning to Cuba nor Colombia merits a death sentence.

Many of our Jewish institutions of late in the United States are supporting the cause of fair and open immigration policies, placing signs on synagogue front lawns, participating in marches and, recently, “adopting” refugee families to help them acclimate and become American. Yet, “Sotto Voce” is a soft sell. HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has found new voice and new purpose by extending its mission and its reach to refugees of other religious backgrounds and cultures. It is a co-sponsor of the production.

The title of the play derives from Italian and means a low or soft voice, a trait Bemadette found attractive in her conversations with young admirer Saquiel. Yet, “Sotto Voce” suggests a message for our time that needs to ring out, not whisper.

“Sotto Voce,” by Nilo Cruz, through Oct. 29. Theater J, Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW¸ Washington. Tickets: $39-$69. Call 202-777-3210 or visit edcjcc.org/center-for-arts/theater-j/ for information.

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