Friday, October 26, 2007

PLAY: "The Overwhelming"

Photo/Joan Marcus

"The Overwhelming" is an accurate, if not understated, description of the "cats and rats" cycle of fear that led to a mass and swift genocide in 1994 Rwanda when the Tutsi-led RDF seized power. As such, it is also an accurate phrase to be the title of J. T. Rogers' political and human play about an American family -- real outsiders -- caught in the middle of what they cannot understand or name enough to even fear properly. Rogers' script is smooth, chopped into scenes (not to mention languages) that easily elide in and out of one another in an effort to provide an unbiased view of the Hutu and Tutsi struggle. His play is also subtler than Hotel Rwanda, taking place in the absolute calm before the storm, and without any hero, just a series of increasingly (or decreasingly) sympathetic characters.

Jack Exley (Sam Robards) has come to Rwanda on a last-ditch effort to salvage his scholarly career. He plans to write about his former college roommate, Joseph Gasana (Ron Cephas Jones), now a leading AIDS doctor, only to find that his friend is missing, killed, and then perhaps still alive, and perhaps not really his friend, and possibly not even a very good doctor. He's also brashly brought his family into this terse land: his new wife, Linda White-Keeler (Linda Powell), and his teenage son, Geoffrey (Michael Stahl-David). Linda, who is African-American (the play has a laugh at this term), leaps at the opportunity to further her connection with "home" (she's from Detroit), and to write new creative nonfiction from her personal experiences, most of which come from the charismatic Rwandan government official, Samuel Mizinga (Charles Parnell). Geoffrey leaps at the chance, too: to separate himself from his father, something he's assisted in by his peer, Gerard (Chris Chalk), a secretly Americanized teen who is happy to show Geoffrey where to "make sex with the ladies."

This may seem like a few too many subplots, but J. T. Rogers immerses us in it, which is where the strong casting comes in. The Overwhelming, dealing entirely in shades of gray (with the foreboding of red), keeps introducing dual characters: when Exley tries to find his friend, he encounters a vindictive policeman and a helpless UN major, both played by Owiso Odera. When there's information to barter, it comes from a snooty French diplomat and bitter South African NGO worker, reflections of one another played by Boris McGiver. Those actors who stay more or less in one role end up with untold layers and nuances: as U.S. embassy official Charles Woolsey, James Rebhorn makes us hate the cold aloofness with which he discourages Jack and brags about living pension to pension. But sure enough, in a bittersweet scene on a golf course (the play is mostly set in a resort, which hammers home Rwanda's "vertiginous dichotomy"), we find that Woolsey cares very much for the home he's made, and is dismissive out of frustration, not callousness. There's simply nothing he can do.

Where The Overwhelming flags a bit is in the direction from Max Stafford-Clark, who keeps underscoring the scenes. It's bad enough that Rogers has to state the obvious (in one scene, a Hutu villager talks Linda out of buying cabbage from a Tutsi whore), but do we really need a mountain of skulls to pop out of the wall? Or even the one "subtly" spotlit one stuck in the background's frame? The tension builds from the language, an increasingly aggressive spiral of conversations that use repetition as emphasis; it isn't necessary to have a literal thunderstorm too, or to project a swimming pool onto the ground.

Though we all know where The Overwhelming is headed, both from subtle cues and overbearing ones, Rogers and the excellent cast manage to keep disarming us. Everyone lies, everyone runs, and everyone has a moment of inner conflict, which is what transforms this from a political mouthpiece into an actual drama. Some moments are more defined than others, as with Jack's climactic choice (and who could do otherwise?) or Geoffrey's bloodied realization that he's out of his league, but even the Linda's tender needs are well acquitted when the judgment comes knocking.

This is an awfully impressive production -- important, too -- and if it reproducing a revival of Cabaret is what it takes for Roundabout to finance projects like this, then they absolutely ought to proceed, full steam ahead. There was a class of students when I attended, right beside them was a row of elderly women, and then there was me. I'd say we all learned a lot, and I doubt many left that theater underwhelmed.

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