Theater critic: “Secret things” on the 1st floor
“Secret Things”, currently playing at 1st Stage, is a heartfelt play, beautifully staged and performed about the quest for identity and love. If you appreciate a good dose of magical realism, you will fully appreciate this work.
The acting is top notchâ¦ It’s not an easy piece, but it’s worth the trip.
It begins intriguingly as a matter of finding out what is known about Crypto-Jews and Conversos in the Santa Fe area of ââNew Mexico and the dual nature of those communities. Families who converted to Catholicism centuries ago still perform Jewish rituals without really knowing why or why they perform them in secret. The bellicose nature of the story is embodied in the person of Delia (Alina Collins Maldonado) and in her work as a journalist in New York. There is spiritual warfare in her. Professionally, she is at the top. Personally, her love life is a mess and she is increasingly in conflict over who she is.
She bullies her editor, Ben (Matthew Sparacino who also plays a character known as Boy), at the magazine where she works to let her pursue a story that came to her via an anonymous package from her hometown of Santa Fe. She and Ben had ended a brief amicable affair. They still care about each other personally without being in love. Delia also has strange dreams of her aunt (Luz NicolÃ¥s, who also plays her mother) trying to send her a message. She arrives home without announcing her arrival in advance, and surprises her father (Lawrence Redmond, who also plays a rabbi). In one beautiful gesture – her reluctance to give her daughter a hug and she visibly emboldened herself to accept one, then the two hugging tightly for a moment – completely sums up the tense family dynamic.
When Delia meets Abel (Luis Alberto GonzÃ¡lez), their borders begin to disintegrate almost immediately. She wants hard evidence – documents and the like – that Crypto-Jews exist in Santa Fe, and he can’t offer it to her. He offers to present it to the rabbi and others. Since she needs corroborations other than secret or unconscious family rituals (like the separation of dairy and meat as a tradition) or oral tradition, she becomes increasingly frustrated.
As his frustration increases, so does his / her dreams of auntie. Her parents refuse to tell her about Crypto-Jews, even when a long-lost memory returns of her mother and grandmother. As tensions rise, her aunt takes her in hand more directly in dreams and leads her to a tree of life that holds everyone’s stories. It’s her heart, and Delia will have to face her greatest fear: having no heart and being unable to love.
The writing is beautiful, humorous, lyrical and like a daydream. Playwright Elaine Romero has written a play on many great topics: identity, loss of identity, self-confidence, confidence in life, and reclaiming one’s ancestors in broad daylight. It feels a bit like a grafted subplot when Delia’s quest for answers and understanding turns to finding her soul mate as well. It is beginning to eclipse his search for the truth about the descendants of Spanish Jews in the Americas and why their legacy and history have been partly lost.
It’s also a piece full of symbolism – from the chillies her father sometimes wears to her aunt’s necklace at the bridge her aunt appears on, among other things. The deceptively simple ensemble, designed by Jessica Alexandra Cancino, consists of the aforementioned bridge flanked by two curved staircases and dark lace fabric that resembles the interlocking leaves of a giant tree. The set, combined with the alluring lighting designed by Alex Casillas, sets the tone for two worlds that collide and eventually come together.
Maldonado is perfect as Delia: cautious, sarcastic, vulnerable, yearning for a real connection, and arrogant (like a good journalist). GonzÃ¡lez is eminently credible as a man trying to make this story known in the national light so that people have a choice of their identity. It also brings a sense of equality to Delia’s assumptions about power balances, holding her accountable. Redmond, like the Father and the Rabbi, is always a pleasure on stage. He’s surprisingly funny as a rabbi who gives Delia more to think about than she wants. As a Mother, NicolÃ¥s doesn’t have much to work with. Her relationship with her daughter is a bit strained and she seems almost helpless when Delia argues with her. But as an aunt, she is bossy and powerful. You can feel her slight exasperation at the defenses Delia has put in place and her sense of urgency that they must fall now (this sense of urgency is never fully explained). It’s a good strong cast. Sparacino plays his role of exasperated boss / ex-boyfriend with a real sense of the modern, urban man caught in the smallest details of his professional life without thinking deeply about anything other than the next deadline.
âSecret Thingsâ is an intriguing piece about the first diaspora of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula to Mexico and heads north. The acting is top notch, and the play may make you think about what you think you know to be the truth about family traditions. It’s not an easy game, but it’s well worth the trip.
Duration: About 90 minutes in a row without an intermission.
Show review: a little adult language.
âSecret Thingsâ will run until December 12, 2021 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd, Tysons, VA 22102. For tickets and more information, please click here.