May 8, 2019

A Family Must Confront Domestic Violence in “Morir Sonyando”; Passage Theatre Offers Compelling Production of Raw, Nuanced Drama

“MORIR SONYANDO”: Performances are underway for “Morir Sonyando.” Directed by C. Ryanne Domingues, the play runs through May 19 at Passage Theatre. Felix (Daniel Colón, left) and Genesis (Maria Peyramaure, center) try to come to terms with the abuse inflicted, and endured, by their mother, Paloma (Johanna Tolentino, right). (Photo by Jeff Stewart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre is presenting the New Jersey premiere of Morir Sonyando. This poignant family drama, which is set in North Philadelphia, had its world premiere in 2014 at Philadelphia’s Power Street Theatre Company, where author Erlina Ortiz is resident playwright and artistic director.

The title refers to a crucial moment in the story. It can be translated as “die dreaming,” and is the name of a drink that is popular in the Dominican Republic. According to the program, the misspelling of “soñando” is derived from the way Ortiz spelled the word when she was younger.

Morir Sonyando concerns the stormy relationship of a Dominican woman, Genesis — and her younger brother, Felix — with their mother, Paloma, who is a victim of domestic violence. Paloma has murdered her husband in a desperate attempt to protect her children, but inflicts on them the treatment she has endured.

The play often evokes a nightmare — through its nonlinear time frame, as well as its poetic imagery (Genesis stuffs a doll in a bag shortly before she metaphorically describes the same thing being done to her). At college Genesis studies psychology, and the show gives the sense that the characters are remembering random, repressed events from their pasts that have made them who they are.

“For me, Morir Sonyando is a play about searching through the memories of our past in order to heal ourselves in the present,” writes Passage Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues, who has directed this production, in a program note. Working from Ortiz’s literate script, Domingues delivers staging that is marked by astute choices. An example is the use of levels; Genesis, who struggles to rise above her experiences, often is placed on an elevated platform.

Multimedia is used to great effect. Sadah “Espii” Proctor’s contemplative projections establish the settings — including a street and a prison cell — and underscore the mood of the scenes. Dustin Pettegrew’s gritty set includes multiple video screens that loom above both sides of the stage; on these we see excerpts of a documentary for which Paloma has been interviewed while in prison for her husband’s murder.

The clips, which offer a sympathetic portrait of Paloma, are juxtaposed against her live-action behavior toward her children. Jim Streeter’s lighting accents this demarcation.

Morir Sonyando is partly inspired by a real-life documentary, Sin by Silence, “which is about women in prison for killing abusive partners. Hearing these women’s stories really sparked something in me,” Ortiz tells, adding that she aims to give “people voices who don’t have one, and I couldn’t think of anyone who’s had their voice stripped away more desperately than an incarcerated woman.”

In exploring this theme, Morir Sonyando is somewhat reminiscent of Caged, which Passage presented last season. In the earlier play, extreme poverty causes the protagonist to turn to crime as a means to provide for his family, leading to his imprisonment. In both cases, it is brutally clear that even when the characters are not incarcerated, they still are trapped by their circumstances.

“If I thought of abuse, I would think of hitting and slapping, but it doesn’t always start like that,” Paloma reveals in an interview excerpt. “It starts with names. Little jokes that aren’t so funny … before you know it, he’s choking you against the door in the hallway while your children laugh and play on the other side.”

We see this behavior repeat itself in Paloma’s treatment of Genesis. It manifests itself first as verbal abuse (we hear her berate Genesis for cutting her hair), then physical assault. In a later interview clip, Paloma describes the dynamic between them as “one of those mother-daughter relationships where we disagree and fight, but we are never really angry because we admire the other so much.”

Paloma may be the antagonist in terms of her relationship with Genesis and Felix, but she is anything but a villain. That she is every bit as much a victim is made clear in the script, through strategic use of flashbacks, and by Johanna Tolentino’s multilayered performance, which portrays Paloma’s kindness as convincingly as it does her cruelty.

Tolentino is equally effective in her alternate role as a priestess who sells Felix a bottle of holy water, and urges Genesis to “look into the light” that is offered by her candles. She prays on their behalf to “Divino Niño, for the infant Jesus to bring blessings and good luck into your home.” For this scene, costume designer Caitlin Cisek dresses Tolentino in an opulent white gown that is in sharp contrast to the other clothes in the show, which use an appropriately dark, subdued color palette.

Maria Peyramaure’s portrayal of Genesis accentuates the extent to which the character tries, and sometimes fails, to understand her past and recover from it. As a student of psychology, she re-watches Paloma’s interviews with a stoic, analytical expression on her face. This is periodically belied by pained outbursts, which are the surprise they need to be, thanks to Peyramaure’s performance. (“I’m tenure-track. I’m on the alumni board … I just started taking Jiu Jitsu classes!” Genesis abruptly snaps at Felix when he urges her to visit Paloma, who at that point is ailing.)

Daniel Colón’s sensitive performance suggests that Felix is less far along than Genesis in the recovery process; his facial expressions hint that he still is in some shock at everything he has witnessed. Nevertheless, his character is an anchor who makes an effort to keep the family together; even as a young boy, he attempts to diffuse an argument between Paloma and Genesis. At one point, we learn that Felix is going to be a father; the script does not show us his life with his family, so we can only hope that the family’s cycle of abuse will not be passed onto his child.

Toward the end one of Proctor’s images offers a succinct, cathartic metaphor; sunlight seeps in through a Venetian blind. This echoes the picnic scene, in which Genesis, who is reading the aptly chosen A Wrinkle in Time, delivers this quote: “And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

Morir Sonyando is unsparing in its honesty, but it is poetic and spiritual. It chooses its words and stage pictures with consistent deliberation, and is filled with recurring motifs. One leaves the theater grateful for having seen it.

Passage Theatre is partnering with Womanspace to offer post show discussions after the Sunday matinees. Womanspace will have a counselor and resource table available before and after each performance.