“Secret Things,” now playing at 1st Stage is a heartfelt, beautifully-staged and acted play about the quest for identity and love. If you enjoy a healthy dose of magical realism, you will thoroughly enjoy this work.
The acting is first-rate…This isn’t an easy play, but it is well worth the journey.
It starts intriguingly as a question of discovering what is known about the Crypto-Jews and Conversos in the Santa Fe area of New Mexico and the dual nature of these communities. Families who converted to Catholicism centuries ago still perform Jewish rituals without quite knowing why or why they perform them in secret. The warring 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 a spiritual war going on inside her. Professionally, she’s on top. Personally, her love life is a mess and she’s growing more conflicted about who she is.
She browbeats her editor, Ben (Matthew Sparacino who also plays a character known as Boy), at the magazine where she works into letting her pursue a story that came to her via an anonymous package from her home town, Santa Fe. She and Ben had pretty amicably ended a brief affair. They still care for each other personally while not being in love. Delia is also having strange dreams of her Aunt (Luz Nicolås, who also plays her Mother) who is trying to send her a message. She arrives home without announcing her arrival in advance, and surprised her Father (Lawrence Redmond, who also plays a rabbi). In one beautiful gesture—his hesitation at giving his daughter a hug and her visibly steeling herself to accept one, then both of them clinging tightly for a moment—completely encapsulate the fraught family dynamic.
When Delia meets Abel (Luis Alberto González), their boundaries start disintegrating almost immediately. She wants hard proof—documents and such—of the existence of Crypto-Jews in Santa Fe, and he can’t offer her that. He does offer to introduce her to the rabbi and some other people. Since she needs corroboration other than secret or unconscious family rituals (such as separating dairy and meat as a tradition) or oral tradition, she grows increasingly frustrated.
As her frustration increases, so too do her dreams of/from her Aunt. Her parents refuse to speak to her of the Crypto-Jews, even when a long-lost memory comes back of her mother and grandmother. As tensions build, her Aunt takes her in hand more directly in the dreams and leads her to a tree of life that holds everyone’s stories. This is her heart, and Delia will have to face her greatest fear—of not having a heart and being incapable of love.
The writing is beautiful, humorous, lyrical, and like a waking dream. The playwright, Elaine Romero, has written a play about a lot of big topics—identity, identity loss, trusting oneself, trusting life, and reclaiming one’s ancestors in full daylight. It feels like a little bit of a grafted-on subplot when Delia’s quest for answers and understanding also turns to finding her soul mate. That starts to overshadow her search for the truth about the descendants of Spanish Jews in the Americas and why their legacy and history was partly lost.
This is also a play full of symbolism—from the chilis her father carries at times to the necklace of her Aunt to the bridge on which her Aunt appears, among other things. The deceptively simple set, designed by Jessica Alexandra Cancino, consists of that aforementioned bridge flanked by two curving staircases and a dark, lacy 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 colliding and possibly joining.
Maldonado is perfect as Delia—guarded, sarcastic, vulnerable, longing for true connection, and pushy (like a good journalist). González is eminently believable as a man trying to bring this story to national light so people have choice in their identities. He also brings a sense of equality to Delia’s assumptions about power balances, holding her accountable. Redmond, as the Father and the Rabbi, is always a pleasure on stage. He is unexpectedly funny as the Rabbi who gives Delia more to think about than she wants. As the Mother, Nicolås doesn’t have a lot with which to work. Her relationship with her daughter is a little fraught and she seems almost defenseless when Delia argues with her. But as the Aunt, she’s commanding and powerful. You can sense her slight exasperation with the defenses that Delia has put up, and her sense of urgency that they must fall now (also that sense of urgency is never fully explained). It’s a good strong cast. Sparacino plays his part of exasperated boss/ex-boyfriend with a real sense of a modern, urban man caught up in the minutiae of his professional life without thinking deeply about anything except the next deadline.
“Secret Things” is an intriguing play about the early diaspora of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula to Mexico and points north. The acting is first-rate, and the play may make you think about what you believe you know is the truth about family traditions. This isn’t an easy play, but it is well worth the journey.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes straight without intermission.
Show Advisory: Some adult language.
“Secret Things” runs through December 12, 2021 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd, Tysons, VA 22102. For tickets and more information, please click here.