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A CurtainUp Review
The Overwhelming


The world is different for you. We are not so lucky. We have a saying here: In Kigali, life expectancy is twelve hours, renewable. — Mizinga
We have a saying like that back home: (being ghetto) Yo, watch your back. — Linda
The Overwhelming
Left to right: Sam Robards, Michael Stahl-David, Linda Powell
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
J. T. Rogers's The Overwhelming begins in Kigali, Rwanda in 1994 only a short time before the explosion of violence between the rebel minority Tutsi and the extremist dominant Hutu factions. By the time the genocide that had begun with the shooting down of President Habyirmana's plane on April 6th and ended on July 4th, 800,000 people had been brutally slaughtered. At the time, the world knew little of the racial and political issues in this African nation and seemed to care less.

Rogers undertook a challenge to put this complex, remote situation into a perspective that could relate to the experience of one American family. Tension and danger is implicit as the family becomes unwittingly entangled in a complex sociopolitical maze fueled by distrust and long-standing hatred.

During the course of this fragmented chilling play, seen last year at London's National Theater and now being given a limited run at the Roundabout's Laura Pels, Jack Exley's family becomes not only divided by misguided intentions, but also by their own naiveté. Filled with probably more exposition than most dramas can realistically support, director Max Stafford-Clark has shaped the play's unwieldy structure into a vivid, if depressing, portrait of a time and place where conditions suddenly spiraled out of control.

Exley (Sam Robards), a middle-aged professor of international relations, has done a lot of traveling. For all his international savvy he is unaware, even oblivious, to the incendiary conditions to which he has unwittingly subjected himself, his wife Linda (Linda Powell) and his 17 year old son Geoffrey (Michael Stahl-David). But how was Jack to know what to expect when he arrives in Kigali for a reunion with Joseph (Ron Cephus Jones), an old college friend? Joseph had returned to his homeland as a doctor specializing in treating children with AIDS. Jack is there to consult with Joseph as part of his research for a book he is writing: "A comparative analysis of grass roots activists around the world."

Jack arrives a day ahead of Linda and Geoffrey and is met at the airport by Woolsey (James Rebhorn), a mildly cynical US Embassy official. In the car from the airport Woolsey talks about his job and how, since the end of the cold war he has been reduced to "shuffling papers and picking up tourists." His rhetorical question "What are we protecting?"gives a hint of the kind of questions to be asked in a series of furtive conversations that Jack, Linda and Geoffrey later have with other foreigners and Rwandans with whom they become involved.

Perceiving Jack as either conspicuously naïve or simply spectacularly dense becomes a major dramatic factor as Jack, as well as Linda and Geoffrey, heedlessly become embroiled in politically driven, life-threatening situations with no clue as to how to deal with them. When Jack finds Joseph is missing from the clinic, he begins to worry. However, neither the local police, diplomats or government officials seem willing to help him find his vanished friend. Jack persists in his search can be regarded as foolhardy. It is matched bt the blatantly irresponsible way that Linda, a journalist and Sam's black second wife, digs for information from questionably friendly informants; and the way Geoffrey stupidly becomes involved with a Rwandan hooker. We cannot help but be one step ahead of them as we plainly see the web in which they are caught.

Though Robards may make you wince at Jack's dogged commitment to track down his friend his performance is sturdily defined. Powell is excellent as the aggressive journalist who doesn't realize how she is being used by those she trusts. As Geoffrey, Stahl-David is believable as the uprooted teenager whose friendship with the family's servant Gerard (Chris Chalk) is compromised when things get ugly. Cephas Jones effectively punctuates his scenes with fear and desperation, as the fugitive Joseph. Boris McGiver is terrific and so virtually unrecognizable as a French diplomat and a South African NGO worker that only the program lets you know he is playing both roles. Also doubling with marked differences in personality is Sharon Washington, as Joseph's fearful wife and as a dedicated Rwandan doctor. Among a strong supporting cast, Charles Parnell empowers Samuel Mizinga, a Rwandan government official with gracious duplicity.

The all-in-one setting by Tim Shortall, in which a large wall mounting of the Madonna and child and an altar with cabbages dominates and a few tropical trees and lattice work fencing, is mostly suggestive of various places. The repositioning of tables and chairs create changes in locale. David Weiner's atmospheric lighting sheds light on a tragedy that is still left sadly in the shadows by Rogers' mainly well-intentioned play.

Postscript: I saw The Overwhelming a few days after Simon did and agree with his overall assessment which, alas, tends not to quite live up to its worthy intention. The fact that the film Hotel Rawanda has already thrown the spotlight on the Rawanda horrors doesn't mean that there isn't room for a live drama set in the same period. However, the intimacy of live drama in this instance does not work as well as a filmed version might and, for sure, the Exleys don't come close to evoking the sympathy and power of the heroic hotel manager (a real person) at the center of Hotel Rawanda.

I would add that I found Tim Shortall's set not just suggestive of various places but a very telling metaphor for the multi-layered politics of this Rwandan city. Besides the ominous barbed wire on top of that Madonna and Child back wall, there's the big poster ad with its slogan that doesn't just apply to the local beer: Tested. Tasted. Trusted.

The title, in case you don't read program notes, comes from the Mongo language term for the onslaught of Congolese killings that grew out of the late 1800s Belgian's campaign to conquer the Congo and the millions of Congolese killings. The word is also used by Joseph the Rawandan doctor in one of the letters to his American friend: "What I see every day can be overwhelming." —Elyse Sommer.
The Overwhelming
By J.T. Rogers
Directed by Max Stafford-Clark
Chris Chalk (Gérard), Ron Cephas Jones (Joseph Gasana), Tisola Logan (Emiritha), Boris McGiver (Jean-Claude Buisson/Jan Verbeek), Owiso Odera (Rwandan Man/Policeman/United Nations Major), Charles Parnell (Samuel Mizinga), Linda Powell (Linda White-Keeler), James Rebhorn (Charles Woolsey/Zimbabwean Doctor), Sam Robards (Jack Exley), Michael Stahl-David (Geoffrey Exley) and Sharon Washington (Rwandan Doctor/Elise Kayitesi).
Set Design: Tim Shortall
Costume Design: Tobin Ost
Lighting Design: David Weiner
Sound Design: Gareth Fry
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
Roundabout Theater Company at the Laura Pels Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theaer, 111 West 46th Street.
From 9/28/07; closing 1/06/08; opening 10/23/07. Cast: Chris Chalk, Ron Cephas Jones, Tisola Logan, Boris McGiver, Owiso Odera, Charles Parnell, Linda Powell, James Rebhorn, Sam Robards, Michael Stahl-David and Sharon Washington Tickets, $63.75-$73.75. Review by Simon Saltzman based on 10/21/07 performancer


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