unspecifiedBy Manning Harris

Aurora Theatre is presenting Nilo Cruz’ haunting play “Sotto Voce” as a part of their Harvel Lab Series in the studio, or black box theatre; the play runs through May 8 and is directed by Justin Anderson.

Mr. Cruz, a Cuban-born playwright, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for “Anna in the Tropics.” Here he focuses on an event that took place just before World War II broke out: In May of 1939 the German transatlantic liner S.S. St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany, on a voyage to Havana, Cuba. On board were 937 Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich. You may know that the ship’s passengers were not allowed to disembark in Cuba, the United States, or Canada. Eventually, some passengers were taken in by Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Nevertheless, as the Nazis spread across Europe, many of the passengers perished in concentration camps.

“Sotto Voce,” which means “in a quiet voice,” takes place in 2000. Saquiel Rafaeli (Louis Gregory) is a young Jewish man from Havana on a mission to New York City to see Bemadette Kahn (Marianne Fraulo), 80, a Berlin-born novelist who has agoraphobia and won’t leave her apartment. Saquiel believes she has valuable information about the St. Louis and pre-war Germany. Her maid and housekeeper, the jolly Lucila (Denise Arribas), keeps her company. These three comprise the entire cast of this 90 minute play.

A sepia-toned romantic ambience which Tennessee Williams (“The play is memory”) would have loved pervades “Sotto Voce.” There is a back and forth movement, past and present, that is almost hypnotic.

Saqueil and Bemadette start communicating by phone and email. We learn that the great love of her life, Ariel Strauss, was one of hundreds of German Jews aboard the St. Louis. Saquiel wants to know Ariel’s story.

Although Bemadette will not meet with Saquiel face-to-face, we see that in affairs of the heart, there are no rules. In a strange and poignant way, he becomes Ariel. The mise en scène employs soft and subtle lighting (Ben Rawson) and a set (Trevor Carrier) with evocative background images (technical director Daniel Terry) that are most effective in transporting us to a haunting time of doom, loss, and canceled love.

The whole experience of the play is a subtle, evanescent one; staging the work in the more intimate theatre was a very wise move. “This is what happens when one lives with silence for so long,” says Bemadette. “One runs the risk of falling for a voice.”

And she does fall for Saquiel and his voice; personally, I wanted a meeting of the two, so she could see his handsome face and experience more fully his proffered empathy. I think Mr. Cruz could have given us a scene of great tenderness. He might have effected a miracle cure for her ultimately annoying agoraphobia.

As it is, Lucila (Ms. Arribas, in a fine, bracing performance) stands in for Bemadette in a charming short scene which skirts time and identity.

The actors are all first rate: Ms. Fraulo’s Bemadette is witty, sad, mysterious and moving. Mr. Gregory, for awhile Atlanta’s go-to guy for rather sexy male ingenue roles (“Good Boys and True,” “Finn in the Underworld,” “Large Animal Games”), has grown as an actor; he’s wiser, gentler, more trustworthy.

Justin Anderson has become one of Atlanta’s most versatile and meticulous directors. “Sotto Voce” is not a perfect play, but it stays with you, in surprising ways. I’m awfully glad I experienced it.

For tickets and information, visit auroratheatre.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.