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STAGE REVIEW

'Sonia Flew' is something special

Immigrant's tale brings life to new BCA theater

The curse may live on, but the drought is over. While the Red Sox were striking out again against the Yankees Wednesday night, the Huntington Theatre Company and the Boston Center for the Arts were uncorking champagne in the first new theater to open in Boston in 75 years.

Not only is the Virginia Wimberly Theatre, the larger of the two stages within the BCA's Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, a beauty, but the play that opened it, Melinda Lopez's "Sonia Flew," marks a step forward for Boston theater in general.

Lopez, an award-winning playwright, has been a particular beneficiary of the Huntington's interest in promoting new work by local writers. She was one of four to receive a commission by the theater, whose artistic director, Nicholas Martin, liked it so much that he decided to direct it as the first production in the Huntington's second stage at the Wimberly.

Smart fellow. Martin and Lopez make beautiful music together in this story of Sonia, a woman whose parents sent her to the United States as Castro began making it clear that the revolution was turning into another dictatorship.

Lopez's playwriting skills have blossomed in "Sonia Flew," realizing the potential that earlier works such as "God Smells Like a Roast Pig" and "The Order of Things" pointed to. Meanwhile, Martin and set designer Adam Stockhausen take to the handsome new space with a sense of confidence and style that makes it seem the Wimberly was built just for them.

The wide proscenium stage is framed by the warmth of a curving balcony and mahogany moldings, though it's what happens onstage that gives the evening its glow.

As the play opens, Sonia is a thoroughly Americanized middle-age Minneapolis woman with a Jewish husband and two children. Sonia can't believe that her son, Zak, is about to throw over his inherited life of comfort to enlist in the armed forces and fight overseas.

Lopez may be straining credulity herself by having him enlist, but it's a necessary step for her to get to her broader concerns about family and country.

It turns out that Zak's interest in defending America has parallels with the young Sonia's exuberance about the coming of Castro, and her determination to keep Zak safe mimics her own mother's willingness to send Sonia to the United States. In structuring the action this way, Lopez finds more interesting things to say about patriotism and family values than either presidential candidate.

But Sonia and her family are not pawns for Lopez to make her points. With help from a terrific cast, including local favorites Will LeBow and Jeremiah Kissel, we're drawn into the dynamics of a mix-and-match contemporary family. The brittle banter of the professional couple -- Carmen Roman as Sonia and Kissel as Daniel, her husband -- nicely balances the irreverence of the two children, played by Ivan Quintanilla and Amelia Alvarez.

It's LeBow, though, as Daniel's visiting father, who puts a charge into the air with his humorous and open yet ethical and firm sense of family and tradition. LeBow's comic timing almost always lights sparks at the American Repertory Theatre, and he provides the same service here.

Each of the actors portrays a different type of character in the second act, which flashes back 40 years to Cuba. Roman, for example, plays a neighbor instead of Sonia's mother, as you might expect. This seems distracting at first, but ultimately all the playing against first-act type helps delineate what Lopez is after thematically. It also gives the actors a chance to stretch, and LeBow shows the most elasticity as Sonia's father, who sees the handwriting on the wall in terms of his future in Cuba.

Stockhausen's set is particularly impressive in the first act, capturing the coming together of traditions in strange ways -- a Jewish star of David atop a Christmas tree, for example. The house is comfortable and claustrophobic at the same time. Perhaps it makes sense that Zak would enlist, after all.

Martin clearly has a fondness for these characters as he directs their confrontations with an emotional integrity that never gets histrionic. It's crucial that the actors don't overplay their emotions, and none of them does.

But it's Lopez who deserves the primary credit for the presentation of such an intriguing slice of life. I don't know that "Sonia Flew" is a play for the ages, but it's certainly a play for our age. The first act is in keeping with several recent novels about immigration and assimilation, such as Gish Jen's "The Love Wife" and Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake." "Sonia Flew" is more artful than either of those highly touted books.

In Lopez's earlier work you can sense a struggle over her Cuban roots versus her American upbringing. She is still raising questions about ethnocentrism and assimilation, about Castro and capitalism, but it all seems more integrated now -- the writing, the voice, the sense of structure.

There are multiple meanings to the title of "Sonia Flew" that make themselves apparent as the play progresses. There's nothing ambiguous, though, about the flight pattern of Lopez, the Huntington, and the BCA. This is quite a takeoff.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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