Sunday, April 20, 2008

I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda

Photo/Gerry Goodstein

For a week, I've been unable to write this review, wanting desperately to do this play justice. I struggled to describe I Have Before Me . . ., for at a surface glance, it is tacky: Sonja Linden has created a pretentious yet talented poet to stand in for the playwright, and this poet then instructs (and is instructed by) a fiercely intelligent yet emotionally fragile Rwandan refugee. But it's clear from the writing that Mrs. Linden was shaken to the core by her experiences: knife-sharp slivers of detail in this play cut holes in the facile frame, allowing for a fuller picture. More so, despite some missteps by director Elise Stone (none that are serious), Susan Heyward delivers a performance so textured that the show achieves its self-proclaimed goal: "Good writing makes you see what the writer wants you to see--and feel."

At first, it isn't clear that we're meant to feel much more than "scribbles," with Simon (Joseph J. Menino) bumbling his way through his first session with Juliette (Susan Heyward). This opening is played largely for laughs, with the two actors directly describing their expectations to the audience so that we see the huge gulf between the sheltered perspective of an educated Londoner and the forced narrative of a Rwandan refugee. But it quickly gets bigger, as Simon -- himself a well-intentioned stand-in for the majority of audience members -- learns just how little he knows about Rwanda. And as Simon gets Juliette to be descriptive rather than factual, the show goes from being a silly writing exercise to being a heartrending drama. (This is not to say that there aren't overdone moments: Simon's scenes are largely aimless and self-generated, for his character is meant to be stiff and boring.)

This conceit is best illustrated by Juliette's epiphany: she is given an assignment that requires her to simply describe her room. As she begins, Mrs. Heyward is flat and reluctant, ticking off the items in her spartan hostel room. But before long, she begins to talk about the mirror in the room, through which she bitterly sees herself as an object. And soon after, she's peering back into her own painfully detailed memories, nuanced observations such as how they killed all the dogs, because otherwise the dogs would be eating the corpses, or describing how the Hutu would make their victims pay to be killed with a bullet (with the alternative being far, far worse). "Every time I write it," she weeps, "it is like I am there."

For the most part, I Have Before Me A Remarkable Document . . . manages to put us there, too. By keeping the set to a minimum, the play emphasizes the human spirit rather than the material world. This does lead Elise Stone to overdirect (a pantomimed car ride, for example) and it puts too much attention on what is present in Rohit Kapoor's design (a crescent-shaped mirror that looks like nothing so much as a guillotine in reverse), but the play ultimately rests in the quavering voice and teary eyes of Susan Heyward, and she is a remarkable actress.

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