The American premiere of J. T. Rogers’ new play The Overwhelming grippingly directed by Max Stafford-Clark for The Roundabout Theater Company is a thought provoking tale of an American family, newly arrived in 1994 Rwanda, where a genocidal civil war is about to break out and nothing or anyone is exactly what they seem. The family will find themselves embroiled in grim events beyond their understanding as they struggle to find the truth and ultimately discover what they will do to protect themselves.
The play takes us right to the heart of things, the capital city of Kigali, as tribal hostilities between the Hutu and Tutsi are about to boil over, just as Jack Exley (Sam Robards) an American professor arrives in hopes of interviewing his old roommate Dr. Joseph Gasana (Ron Cephas Jones), believing the respected physician, who heads a pediatric clinic for HIV patients, will be the through line for a new book he is writing that will win him tenure at his college. The utterly naïve professor brings along his African/American wife (Linda Powell), herself a writer, and his teenage son (Michael Stahl-David) by his first wife. They will arrive in this Third World country with their domestic difficulties in tow and each will encounter dilemmas of their own before finally unearthing some troubling truths about the nation and themselves. When they discover Dr. Gasana has gone missing, the tension will escalate and we will be introduced to numerous unsavory characters as the unfolding story brings dangerous friendships to each family member.
The melodramatic story is told in a series of short pointed scenes and the impeccable direction by Max Stafford-Clark moves the action with swift speed, effectively juggling the many themes and plots into a rapidly paced thriller that comes to a jolting conclusion. He has obtained powerful, memorable performances from a uniformly excellent cast, but Ron Cephas Jones as the AIDS doctor is an impassioned stand out.
The play first produced at London’s National Theatre deals with issues about apathy, survival, self involvement, ignorance, and the brutality of civil war while mixing in sub plots; about inter racial families, rebellion, AIDS and more. There is enough material for a dozen plays and while the evening does have many effective moments the emotional impact is diluted by the abundance of information being hurled at us negating our personal involvement despite the strong performances. The well intended play is so handsomely presented and played that the spellbinding story demands our attention as a flawed, yet unforgettable theatrical achievement.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
The Overwhelming opened at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. Tickets are available by calling Roundabout Ticket Services at 212-719-1300, online at HYPERLINK "http://www.roundabouttheatre.org" www.roundabouttheatre.org or at the theater box office.