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A CurtainUp Review
The Promise

Yes. That's it. That's what is happening. This little girl has decided that silence is the only way.— Maggie Brodie
The Promise
Joanna Tope
(Photo: Niall Walker)
We live at a time when cultures are constantly coming into contact with each other. The result can be inspiring or unpleasant. Sometimes both. Douglas Maxwell's The Promise launches 59E59 Theaters' Scotland Week, an event whose goal is to increase awareness of that country. Ironically, this play is about a Somalian girl in a British school.

Actually the play is not so much about the girl as about Maggie Brodie, a retired teacher who returns to school for one day as a substitute and walks into a nightmare, only partly of her own making. The 90-minute monologue is directed by Johnny McKnight and brilliantly performed by Joanna Tope who seamlessly moves her character from saucy to sexy, from defiant to demented, and a host of other adjectives.

Much of Maggie's story is about her past. She was raised by a father who was something of a religious fanatic and put her sister into a convent at a young age. She has had a long series of lovers she never particularly cared about. She's a longtime alcoholic.

Maggie has many opinions about the children in her classroom as well as her young supervisor. She doesn't seem especially fond of either.

It is when Maggie learns of an exorcism that is going to be performed on Rosie, a six-year-old Somalian girl, that she shifts into high gear. In a bizarre bow to cultural sensitivity, the school has decided that a community leader will be brought to the school to coax out the devil, who is preventing the child from speaking.

Maggie is outraged, but it is not until she discovers Rosie in the bathroom that Maggie discovers the real trauma behind Rosie's silence. Maggie promises the little girl never to speak about what she has seen, but the path Maggie follows after her discovery is brought on by an irrational and irrevocable sympathy and emotional connection to the girl's plight.

The Promise is not an easy play to watch. Although according to the author it is based on an actual event (his note is passed out at the end of the show) it is also a highly personal work. Maxwell tells the story with great poetry, but sometimes his language is so oblique it's hard to figure out where the play is going.

Another problem is the choice ti presentthe story as a monologue. This technique certainly allows the audience to get into the mind of Maggie Brodie, but it does nothing for the little girl who is almost as important to this drama.

Set designer Lisa Sangster has created a very believable classroom, complete with cubbies and walls plastered with the ABCs. Swinging doors even swing back to reveal a few child-sized toilets. But one can't help wishing there were real children in that classroom and a real little girl suffering and silent in that toilet.

The Promise is a fascinating psychological and cultural study. It is performed by an extremely talented actress. Yet, s omehow, when it's over, one has the feeling of not so much having seen a play as attending a lecture.

The Promise
By Douglas Maxwell
Directed by Johnny McKnight
Performed by Joanna Tope
Set and Costume Design: Lisa Sangster
Music: Karen Maciver
Lighting Design: Dave Shea
Video Design: Tim Reid
Production Manager: Dave Shea Stage Managers: Kay Hesford, Gary Morgan
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison
From 3/29/11; opening 4/03/11; closing 4/17/11
Tuesday through Wednesday at 7:15pm, Thursday and Friday at 8:15pm, Sunday at 3:15pm
Tickets: $35 (members $24.50) 212-279-4200 or
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons April 2, 2011
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