“Simona’s Search” at Hartford Stage 

Robert Schneider in Connecticut
4 February 2024


Nearly every day brings us traumatic news from distant parts of the globe: bombardments in Gaza, war in Ukraine, brinksmanship in Taiwan, hunger and violence in Central America. Things aren’t nearly so bad in the USA, witness the millions of migrants eager to enter the country any way they can. Yet Americans seem keen to discover more trauma within their borders. Perhaps it’s survivor guilt for having escaped the worst? Or empathy-turned-to-envy? Whatever it is, we feel the need to suffer, too. Political polarization, a hazardous election, and periodic outbreaks of gun violence aren’t enough to satisfy this inchoate craving.


Alejandra Escalantee.
Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson.


Could this be the impulse behind Martín Zimmerman’s new play Simona’s Search? Premiering at Hartford Stage in a masterful production directed by Melia Bensussen, the play posits that Americans in want of trauma can look to their parents’ and grandparents’ experience to find suffering they silently inherited.

Specifically, the title character searches for the trauma her father experienced in his home country—never named, but somewhere in Latin America—before he came to the USA as a refugee. Papi refuses to talk about it, but it must have been dreadful because even his innocent daughter has symptoms. Why does she have visions of a man moving in darkness? Why does she jump at an unexpected touch? Why is it so hard for her to trust anyone?

Stymied by her father’s reticence— “I’m fine,” he insists— Simona devours journal articles on psychology and neurology hoping to discover how damage done to her parent could somehow lodge itself in her.

As the play and the programme notes make clear, there is strong evidence for the heritability of trauma in mice. The programme gives links to articles describing it. Some researchers dispute that it happens in humans, but using the techniques of a master dramatist, Zimmerman makes a strong case. To be successful the play does not require proof that psychic damage can be passed from father to daughter any more than Ibsen’s Ghosts requires proof that moral depravity can pass like an infectious disease from father to son. Drama doesn’t need truth, only plausibility.

The question remains: why are privileged Americans ransacking their ancestors’ lives for pain? Isn’t there enough in our own generation? To the suffering multitudes of Gaza, inherited visions of a man moving in darkness and a reluctance to be touched must seem like luxuries, a light case of trauma lite.



Al Rodrigo and Alejandra Escalantee.
Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson.


This is how her search begins: eight-year-old Simona wants to host a sleepover for her friends. It goes horribly wrong when, egged on by her guests, she touches her sleeping father in his bedroom. In a flashback to some past event, he hurls her across the room. Only he knows to what experience this violent reflex responds—and he won’t say. To his daughter’s questions he returns a stream of distractions; he seeks to interest her in string theory, particle physics or the drifting of distant galaxies.

Simona grows to college age. Papi wants her to study physics and French. Stubbornly, she chooses neurobiology and Spanish. At school, her edginess and insomnia set her apart from other students, but late at night in the library she bonds with Jake, a loner and a night owl like her. She invites him over but can’t yield to his touch even though she wants to; the vision of a man moving in darkness keeps coming back.

The production uses an array of staging techniques to portray their courtship. At each new level of physical intimacy (choreography by Shura Baryshnikov) the visions become more insistent (projections by Yana Biryukova) and spookier (sound design by Aubrey Dube, lighting by Aja M. Jackson, additional sound design and original music by Lucas Clopton). Given the number of collaborators involved, one would expect the effects to grow heavy or overwrought, but they don’t.

Another example: the rear of Yu Shibagaki’s set features vertical slats that pivot so Papi can be seen walking upstage of them even as his passage is projected downstage on the apron, a curious, 90-degree doubling of his odd, asymmetrical walk. When the slats pivot shut, bright-red light glows between them, the characters’ inner magma. When the magma dies down, the slats are ready to receive projections. In this production, the stage technology doesn’t illustrate or highlight the action, it carries it. It excuses the characters (and the playwright) from pages of description and explanation that might otherwise be necessary.

Something else that is mercifully absent is the father’s final confession. For Papi, the past is dead; he won’t discuss it. He won’t even let his daughter visit the country where it happened. There is no deathbed accounting; we never learn whether he was a torture victim or a torture practitioner. It’s even possible (though it’s never voiced) that Simona inherited her symptoms from her mother—whom we never meet and about whom we know nothing.

Yet Simona needs answers; if she didn’t inherit these visions, she’s hallucinating. (When she seeks professional help, an unsympathetic therapist intimates that she might be schizophrenic.)

Under Bensussen’s direction, the actors are entirely on board with this. Alejandra Escalante plays Simona with lazer focus and bristling intelligence; as each new revelation registers we sense her mind ratchet up to the challenge. She has a gift for linking cause to effect and further cause to further effect with unusual clarity and an absence of extraneous noise.

As her damaged-but-devoted Papi, Al Rodrigo commands a vast assortment of distractions and diversions—anything, in fact, that will divert Simona from her search. The first time he consents to answer his daughter in Spanish, late in the play, his partial surrender is chilling even if he only says three words. Rodrigo also portrays Simona’s various professors and therapists.

As boyfriend Jake, Christopher Bannow is a study in non-toxic masculinity, a character type we are slowly seeing more of. (The Salvagers at Yale Rep in December offered another fine example.) Amusingly, he doubles as a French-speaking lab rat who tangos with Simona when her research turns to rodents. Simona melts with gratitude; the rat has given her clues that humans withheld.

When, after Papi’s death, Simona finally visits his home country she comes to a partial epiphany: her father saw these buildings and breathed this air, and something horrible happened to him. Now the consequences of that ‘something’ are happening to her. It isn’t her fault. In a wonderfully understated last line she concludes “I’ll just have to live with it.”