Secret Things by Elaine Romero at 1st Stage presents two themes—the search for spiritual identity and the quest for a life partner—with creativity and grace. It is well-acted, beautifully produced, and features a love story that will send you out of the theater with a renewed sense of life’s possibilities.
Our heroine, Delia (Alina Collins Maldonado), is a successful journalist in New York. She is writing an article about the Crypto-Jewish community in her home state, New Mexico. The Crypto-Jewish story is controversial, full of contradictions, and has much to teach us about the nature of truth.
The late 15th century saw the establishment of a religious tribunal to identify heretics in Catholic Spain. It was the Spanish Inquisition, set up by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I. Under the Inquisition, many Jews who did not renounce their faith were killed. Those who did convert were known as Conversos. Some became sincere Christians. Others, the Crypto-Jews, continued to practice Judaism in secret.
In 1492 (yes, that 1492) Ferdinand and Isabella gave the Jews of Spain an ultimatum: convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Approximately half went into exile, and half stayed and converted. Five years later, the king of Portugal issued the same decree. Some Conversos left Spain for Mexico and faced Inquisition there.
By the mid-17th century, Crypto-Jews could be found in New Mexico. They utilized common Jewish practices like lighting candles on Friday night, observing the Sabbath, and performing male circumcisions.
Delia begins to suspect she shares this complicated heritage. As she starts to explore, she confronts many obstacles, some religious, some familial, and some deeply personal.
Crypto-Jews have encountered many difficulties over the centuries. There are substantial differences between Jewish and Hispanic cultures. There are divisions among families, and rabbinic authorities. But there is much support for the Crypto-Jewish movement as well.
Today, there is an Anusim (Forced Convert) Center in El Paso. It is designed to help anusim return to Judaism. Shavei Israel, an organization that reaches out to “lost” Jews, was founded by Michael Freund, who sees the Crypto-Jewish movement as a positive development that will increase support for Israel.
Delia’s mother (Luz Nicolás), a devout Catholic herself, insists that they are Catholics. Her ex-boyfriend and editor, Ben (Matthew Sparacino), is less than enthusiastic about Delia’s involvement in the story. He wants evidence. He is even less enthusiastic when he discovers that Delia’s major source, Abel (Luis Alberto González), has become her new love interest.
Alina Collins Maldonado is the firecracker Delia, who has an answer for everything and refuses to let a little thing like love get in her way. “I don’t like talking to you,” Ben says to her, despairingly. “No,” she answers. “You don’t like listening to me.” As an actress, she has exceptional concentration, even in quiet moments, and is always a pleasure to watch.
As Ben, Sparacino deftly conveys a combination of cynicism, hard-won honesty, and regret. Luz Nicolás carries much of the symbolic weight of the play when she portrays Delia’s aunt, who is trying to lead her back to her Crypto-Jewish roots. Nicolás is wonderfully mysterious in these scenes, full of brooding intensity as a mother who seems unsure of exactly if, or when, she went wrong. Delia has a real bond with her father (Laurence Redmond), despite their differences. He struggles to understand her independent spirit, and why it is not a rejection of her family or of him.
At the center of the piece is the love story between Delia and her source Abel (Luis Alberto González). Abel believes passionately in his identity as a Crypto-Jew, and he attempts to engage Delia in that passion. He asks for a list of her family names, to see if any might have Jewish or Converso roots. He can’t offer her the kind of evidence she wants. How could he, when the Crypto-Judaism historically was an oral tradition—and the written material was in the hands of the other side?
Delia is drawn to his struggle and the beliefs that seem so dear to him. He is drawn to everything about her. González as an actor is magnetic, self-deprecating, and funny—a perfect foil for a woman with an overdose of ambition and a hidden spiritual side.
In an especially appealing scene, Abel pours out his feelings about Delia to his rabbi (Laurence Redmond). Redmond’s expressions are hilarious—everything you would expect from a mature person listening to a young man’s disjointed, incoherent, yet charming confessions of first love.
The physical production is lovely in every aspect. (Set Design is by Jessica Alexandra Cancino.) There are stairs and an upstairs deck, where much of the mystical action takes place. Luz Nicolás as Delia’s Aunt stands there in a long skirt and sash, her hair down, creating a striking image. The costume designer, Kelsey Hunt, has found a subtle balance between the traditional and the modern, echoing the underlying themes of the play. Lighting, by Alex Casillas, and the music and sound effects, by Ethan Balis, are attuned carefully to the mood of every scene.
Playwright Elaine Romero has a variety of approaches to writing—heartfelt, ironic, and mystical, which keeps us involved in the lives of the characters and their ultimate destinies. Director Alex Levy, who is also artistic director of 1st Stage, has elicited fine performances from his actors.
Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”
Secret Things is a touching tribute to the mysteries of love and faith.
Running Time: Just under 2 hours, with no intermission.
Secret Things plays through December 12, 2021, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. Tickets ($50 general, $47 seniors 65+, $15 military and student) can be purchased online or by calling the 1st Stage box office at 703-854-1856.
The online playbill is available here.
COVID Safety: Masks and proof of vaccination are required. Click here for details.
Written by Elaine Romero
Directed by Alex Levy
Abel: Luis Alberto González
Delia: Alina Collins Maldonado
Mother/Aunt: Luz Nicolás
Father/Rabbi: Lawrence Redmond
Ben/Boy: Matthew Sparacino
PRODUCTION & DESIGN
Artistic Director: Alex Levy
Associate Artistic Director: Deidra Lawan Starnes
Set Designer: Jessica Alexandra Cancino
Costume Designer: Kelsey Hunt
Lighting Designer: Alex Casillas
Assistant Director/Choreographer: Nicole Maneffa
Sound Designer/Composer: Ethan Balis
Stage Manager: Kirsten Parker
Props Design: George Thomas Wang