Simona’s Search, receiving its world premiere at Hartford Stage, is an engrossing drama that delves into the relationship between an immigrant father and his daughter and, as stated in the program notes, “the passing on of traumatic experiences to subsequent generations that is sometimes prevalent with immigrant families.”
Director Melia Bensussen has staged a very theatrical presentation, utilizing timely and striking projections by Projection Designer Yana Biryukova to augment the story and enhance its power. Aja M. Jackson’s Lighting Design and the Sound Design by Aubrey Dube are also noteworthy and add depth to the production. Yu Shibagaki ‘s continuously reconfigured Scenic Design is straightforward – a table, chairs, slatted wood background – and works harmoniously with the other design elements, primarily the dramatic projections.
Simona’s Search is essentially a memory play with Simona (Alejandra Escalante) speaking to the audience for the majority of the show. Her story begins when she is a young girl, constantly questioning her father, Papi (Al Rodrigo), about his life and their shared culture. A political exile from an unnamed Latin American country, he has completely shunned his previous life and offers no information or clues to his daughter. He won’t even teach or speak Spanish to her. As she grows up, she realizes he has been suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder and, more critically, wonders if she, too, might be developing signs of trauma.
Nightmares, and a spectral figure, haunt her dreams, causing an acute lack of sleep. Much doesn’t change in college. A romantic relationship blossoms, but goes nowhere. Her focus on neuroscience, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, produces no answers to understanding her father, his worsening medical condition, and her dispirited mindset and health. By the show’s conclusion, however, there is a palpable, self-awareness that, while not answering all Simona’s questions and concerns, helps ease her to a more adjusted life.
Playwright Martin Zimmerman has constructed a play that almost seems torn from today’s headlines about the migrant crisis and heartbreaking reports of immigrant families ripped apart at the border. Watching Simona’s Search, one can’t help but wonder about the mental health of the newcomer’s children later in life. Zimmerman roots his work with a number of themes for audiences to reflect on – nature vs. nuture, the question of one’s identity, and the cause/effect of trauma. He has crafted connections which come across as real and honest. This includes the sometimes contentious relationship between Simona and Papi and the young woman and her romantic interest Jake (Christopher Bannow). He adorns the show with scenes of playful passion, mischievous wit, and hardened truths. These include Jake’s wooing of Simona and her dreamy encounter with a lab rat. For all its captivating power, I sometimes felt the pathway towards the show’s conclusion was uneven and portions were contrived to move the plot forward. More specifically, the scene concerning her on and off travel plans due to her father’s mysterious ailment and her admission to a second graduate school program. Still, these detours do not undercut the absorbing nature of the play, which is continuously augment by Director Bensussen’s flourishes of imagination, emotional highs and lows and charm.
The cast, led by Alejandra Escalante as Simona, is superb. Ms. Escalante brings self-assuredness, intensity, and a dash of whimsy to her portrayal as actress and narrator. It is a demanding role, especially since she is onstage during the entire 90-minute, intermission-less show. Al Rodrigo imbues Papi (and a few other characters) with a forceful passion that ebbs and flows between casual banter and angry ripostes. He effectively portrays a character, proud, but shrouded in mystery. Christopher Bannow, as Jake, provides a finely tuned performance of compassion and sensitivity, serving almost as a counterweight to the extremes of the other characters. His rat impersonation, who’s accent is sometimes hard to understand, was a memorable part of the play.
Simona’ Search, a world premiere worth catching. Playing at Hartford Stage through February 11, 2024. Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.