News & Articles

Letter from the Artistic Director on Sonia Flew

by Martha Lavey

Sonia Flew is the story of an American family. It is, therefore, a story of immigration. Captured at the right moment, every American family is a snapshot of an immigrant past: the moment when an émigré’s children are American born. Such a moment amplifies the ubiquitous generational divide. The "country" of one's parent's birth is always a mysterious land--a time gone by-- even when that first home is a shared geographical site. When "home" is a foreign country, the mystery grows more profound: an ocean of time separates parent and child, and a geographical ocean separates the parent from that first place. Sonia Flew traces the story of two such dislocations. The play itself is a representation of a generational divide: the first act reveals a contemporary family; the second act begins some forty years previous. Sonia, the mother of Act 1, is the child of Act 2. As a mother in Act 1, Sonia feels abandoned by her son, mystified and pained by the course he has chosen for his life. This crisis in her parental life transports Sonia to the country of her childhood. Suddenly, as in a dream, Sonia is a child in Cuba once again, poised at the moment when her parents make a fateful decision: a decision which Sonia experiences as another, the original, abandonment. The tremendously sympathetic heart of the play lies in this overleaf. We are each, as children, shielded from the mysterious logic of our parents' sacrifices. What we experience, in our childhood, as the cruelty of parental abandonment or neglect, might be, in fact, the discipline of a parent's silence, sparing the child the painful reality of the compromised choices available. Those parental sacrifices are particularly acute when a family transports itself from one country to another. The tremendous effort a parent must undertake to begin life anew in a foreign land is invisible to the child--all is dedicated to a more promising future. When, like Sonia, the child must be sent into that new land alone, the puzzle of a parent's intent is more profound. How can a child understand that this "abandonment" is an act of parental selflessness--an acceptance of personal loss for the promise of a better future? A unique insight that Sonia Flew provided me is how naturally two historically distinct American immigrations could exist within one nuclear family. Sonia is sent to the United States by her parents to elude the Communist revolution in Cuba in the early 1960s. She marries a European-American man whose Jewish father came to the United States to escape the Nazi occupation of Poland. This confluence of cultures is wittily manifest in the play's time signature: the events of Act 1 unfold at Christmas time. For Sonia and her family, Christmas time means lighting the Hanukkah candles for the children's Jewish grandfather who, visiting from Miami, brings the Cuban pastries of Sonia's childhood. It means preparing the Jell-O mold and 7-Up salad that were de rigueur in the Christmas church celebrations of Sonia's Wisconsin childhood. Food as a touchstone of childhood experience is apt--it reveals the sensual, embodied force of memory and ritual. So much of Sonia Flew is dedicated to giving body, voice, image to the lost land of childhood. The foods, the rituals, the prayers that we carry forward – remnants of our past – are the currency of values, the tokens through which we transfer the deep heart of a past loved and lost. We hand them to our children, hoping to preserve, through these tokens, a generational continuity. Sonia Flew provides us insight into a moment of fracture in this continuum--a moment when the rituals break down, when all that a parent offers to the child feels refused and unappreciated. The magic of the play is to return that parent, Sonia, to her own childhood when she, as child, refused the gifts of her own parents. They send her away, basil in her pocket to ensure her safe journey, a gold ring on her finger, a legacy of her great-grandmother. Heartbroken by her parent's decision to send her away, Sonia stands in the bathroom of the airplane and flushes these treasured tokens down the toilet, incanting, "I do not forgive you. I will never forgive you. You have broken my heart." It’s awful that she experiences these feelings again as a parent when her son leaves home to enlist in a war that she cannot trust or support. More awful still when his grandfather, veteran of another war – a noble and principled war – supports her son's choice. The redemption that the play offers is that the betrayal Sonia feels in her son's choice gives her insight into her own childhood betrayal of her parents. Memory returns Sonia to the land of her childhood – to the moment when she refuses the gifts of her parents – and she sees, for the first time, what her parents saw: a child, walking away, a child refusing to look back, a child flushing away the legacy entrusted to her. In her remorse, Sonia gains another chance. Like her own parents, Sonia has maintained a silence about her past, not wishing to pass on to her children the sacrifices and pain she has experienced, wishing only to provide them an alternate, and limitless, future. In returning to her past, she learns the value of that legacy – a legacy that cannot be flushed away, a legacy that redounds upon her own children's life and must be named. Sonia Flew is a beautiful play. A play that is gracefully balanced between the personal and the political in its introduction of the immigrant experience into the ur-story of the generational divide. The immigrant story is the story of a double fracture: a moment when an historically determinate break from a previous culture is marked and amplified within the timeless story of parents and children. It is a story particularly relevant to the American experience. We are a nation dedicated to our on-going renewal. We look, always, to our future. We valorize forgetting, in the service of the new. The story of Sonia offers a suggestion: a suggestion that our future is forever indebted – is irretrievably tied to – our past. If we silence our past, if we flush it away, we deprive the future of its subtle body, its soulful connection to the joys and tears and hard-fought battles that make the going-forward possible. The play conveys these truths in a language lovingly calibrated for the stage. We watch the family ritual of holidays and food, of airplanes and oceans – of all of those vehicles that transport us across time and place – and feel, in their embodiment, the movement of a heart's desire: to carry forward all that is precious and must be kept, the secrets of the past that make a future possible.