LENOX — Hamburg-Amerika's oceanliner S.S. St. Louis set out from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba on May 13, 1939. The overwhelming majority of its 937 passengers were Jews fleeing Hitler's Germany. Seven hundred forty-three of those passengers had applied for U.S. visas and planned to stay in Cuba only until their applications were approved. Only 22 Jews, those with official Cuba visas, were allowed to disembark. The rest were denied entry into Cuba and the United States. After six days at anchor in Havana harbor, the St. Louis and its ill-fated passengers returned to Europe.
It is against this background that Nilo Cruz has set his drama "Sotto Voce," which is being given an earnest, if also moody and self-consciously reverential production at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.
"Sotto Voce" centers on an attractive 80-year-old recluse, a successful novelist named Bemadette Kahn (Annette Miller), whose life is, if not on hold, than at least in suspension. A self-acknowledged agoraphobic, the only company Bemadette keeps in her New York apartment is her housekeeper, Lucila (Evelyn Howe), a divorced Colombian immigrant whose feistiness belies a certain vulnerability and lack of self-confidence, and her memories, chiefly of a lost love — a young man named Ariel Strauss who, together with his sister, Nina, was a passenger on the St. Louis. Bemadette has done her best, over time, to forget Ariel; to suppress her memories, the love she felt for him, love that bound her to him as if she had become a Jew.
In truth, those feelings, those memories, those ghosts never have disappeared. And now, it all comes rushing back when she is contacted by a young Cuban-Jewish researcher name Saquiel (Jamie Carrillo) who is gathering information on the St. Louis for an upcoming gathering in Miami of St. Louis survivors. While combing through various papers and documents, he comes across a series of letters Bemadette wrote Ariel. He insists, relentlessly, on meeting her. He knows where she lives, stands outside her apartment.
The two never do meet, face to face. Their relationship develops by phone, texting; in imaginings that take Bemadette to an entirely different plane. Bemadette and Saquiel court — innocently, playfully. Literally and figuratively, Saquiel becomes Ariel. As the play moves on, under Daniel Gidron's direction, there is the suggestion that Bemadette will find in death the fulfillment of a promise that has been denied her in life.
There is a measured stateliness to this production that is reflected chiefly in Miller's intonations; grand oratorical resonances that belie long dormant passions that ignite as Ariel assumes renewed life for her. For the most part, its a portrayal etched in emotional monochrome and oratorical technique.
Dressed in black, his eyes underlined with kohl, his face time-worn and looking older than the 28 years Cruz describes him as being, Carrillo's Saquiel is an uneasy, unsettled, cryptic figure in ways that both add intriguing nuance to his relationship with Bemadette and, at the same time, upset the play's delicate balance.
Howe is credible as Lucila. She is most effective and affecting in a scene with Saquiel, when she lets him into Bemadette's apartment while she is in the hospital recuperating from a mild stroke.
Cruz may speak with a soft voice in this play but he carries a bag of big thematic sticks — time, memory, love and its ability to survive and assert itself, in some fashion and at some level, against formidable obstacles. But, like a poet's intellectual exercise, "Sotto Voce" also wanders through an impressionistic haze in search of a life force that remains just out of reach.
What: "Sotto Voce" by Nilo Cruz. Directed by Daniel Gidron
With: Annette Miller, Jamie Carrillo, Evelyn Howe
Who: Shakespeare & Company
Where: Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
When: Closes Sept. 11. Evenings at 8:30 — Sept. 3, 9, 10. Matinees at 3 — Sept. 1, 2, 4, 11
Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes (including one intermission)
How: 413-637-3353; shakespeare.org; in person at Shakespeare & Company box office on site