Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
Designer Yu Shibagaki provides a set that focuses almost exclusively on a rectangular wooden table that occupies a central location. In addition to narration, the play's linkage benefits from the many images Yana Biryukova projects behind the performers. This show succeeds, to great measure, because Zimmerman's writing is immediately engaging and, even more cogently, through pinpoint moment-to-moment acting.
Simona (Alejandra Escalante) flashes backward to the time when, as a little girl, she had a sleepover. That occasion included a revelation. She was nine and had friends at her house. Further detailing would give away far too much. Simona moves onward to her time as an adolescent. She lost her mother at a very young age and has been with her dedicated if opinionated father, Papi (Al Rodrigo), ever since. He is a man who believes in science. He also carries with him lasting trauma from another time and place. Zimmerman does not answer questions one might pose about Papi's past, but Simona, troubled as she matures, contemplates and perhaps hypothesizes. She is a sterling student and chooses to pursue and investigate further through neuroscience. That's relevant to both Papi's situation and her own. She hopes, through graduate school and beyond, to answer "why I am the way I am."
Papi does not wish to divulge information pertinent to his earlier years. He very much wishes his daughter had elected to stay with physics but cannot prevail through insistence. If there is a mystery to this play, it rests with the father's journey rather than Simona's.
Zimmerman is wise to include actor Christopher Bannow, who plays Jake, Simona's caring boyfriend. Their interpersonal relationship blunts the edge, so to speak, of intense daughter/father interface. Later, Bannow deftly and comically embodies a large lab rat. This play is taut and it's helpful to have interludes that divert attention from the stressful, primary throughline. The rat is something more than a hoot. Bannow has been impressive at regional theaters as well as in New York. He was on Broadway in both Oklahoma! and The Elephant Man. Last year, he was cast in Wolf Play Off-Broadway. Al Rodrigo shows versatility with multiple roles here, including an early sequence as a doctor, and he is precise throughout. Rodrigo's Papi is a strong complement to Escalante's Simona. Rodrigo (a performer with many stage and screen appearances) is consistently sustaining.
Alejandra Escalante's performance is sensitive, smart, and fully commanding. She has been in several plays at the Goodman Theater and appeared in a number of Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions. Her turn at Hartford Stage takes Simona from the time she was youthful until she is a rising graduate student who seeks to understand the whys and wherefores of human beings. She seems natural all the while yet the shifting gradations of mood within this character demand discipline, awareness and execution. Escalante's rendering is quite special.
In addition to Bensussen's excellent directorial grasp of the material, Simona's Search is all the better for Shura Baryshnikov's choreography. Specific movement is essential for various scenes, especially a few involving Simona and Jake. These two engage and entangle as a couple, easily and convincingly.
One could correctly note that this show does not feature a whole lot of action. Zimmerman's capability of delving beneath the surface with dialogue and thematic import is enviable.
Simona's Search runs through February 11, 2024 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford CT. For tickets and information, please call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.