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 6 and ended on July 4, 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 socio-political 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 naivete. 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.
Jack 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 16-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 his friend 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 U.S. 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 naive 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, nor government officials seem willing to help him find his vanished friend. Jack’s persistence in his search can be regarded as foolhardy. It is matched by the blatantly irresponsible way that Linda, a journalist and Jack’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 — 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 with a few tropical trees and lattice work fencing, is suggestive of various places in Kigali. The repositioning of tables and chairs creates 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. HH
“The Overwhelming,” through January 6, 2008, Roundabout Theater Company at the Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46th Street. $63.75 to $73.25. 212-719-9393.