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The Overwhelming

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sam Robards, Michael Stahl-David, and Linda Powell
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The inherent trouble with dramatizing an event of singular horror is doing it singularly. Without a generous infusion of uniqueness, a play's shout-worthy concerns might too easily fall on the deaf ears of those who have heard, and seen, all the generic plaints time and time again. That's why J.T. Rogers's new play The Overwhelming, which just opened at the Laura Pels Theatre, is heartbreaking in all the wrong ways: Its subject is all that's not painfully familiar.

But, Rogers argues, it should be. It's hard to disagree. The 1994 Hutu slaughter of some 800,000 Tutsis in the African Republic of Rwanda remains today a shocking, unthinkable act. There were signs, of course, but they're always easier to read in retrospect - the decades of Cold War-style strife between the two groups, the resentment of the once-secondary Hutus that led them to become oppressors themselves, the days and weeks of passive aggression leading up to the fateful April when an entire culture was targeted for destruction.

That these atrocities don't still provoke sorrow and outrage is part of the problem Rogers wants to address - along with the catastrophic attitude of "It can't happen again," which is usually the first step to ensuring it does. Rightfully aware that he can't approach this directly, much as 50 years of writers before him could not encapsulate World War II's Holocaust in a single play or film, Rogers instead focuses on one American family whose move to Rwanda just before the attacks puts them in the center of the conflict. This may have been the only solution, but it's also the key mistake.

Sam Robards and Ron Cephas Jones
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jack Exley (Sam Robards), who has brought his wife Linda (Linda Powell) and son Geoffrey (Michael Stahl-David) with him to Rwanda to research a book, is clueless about the hostilities simmering around him. The philosophy that he and Linda share, about the lone man being enough to effect global change, is not shared by the local Hutus - their campaign of misinformation suggests that the Tutsis are to blame for their societal ills. They must educate Jack and his in-the-dark family by any means possible, as must the Tutsi opposition led by refugee Joseph Gasana (Ron Cephas Jones) and his wife Elise (Sharon Washington).

As there's no pretense of balance - assuming that's even possible - it doesn't take long for The Overwhelming to become a monochromatic polemic, with characters to match. Jack's deceitful servant Gérard (Chris Chalk) is a not-so-secret Tutsi hater. Government official Samuel Mizinga (Charles Parnell) is the living embodiment of evil flourishing while good men do nothing. Everyone else is a token ineffectual, especially the representatives of the various interested parties, from the U.N. and the U.S. to France and South Africa (they're played, most interchangeably, by James Rebhorn, Boris McGiver, and Owiso Odera).

With so many characters occupying the shallow end of the dramatic pool, there's a heavier burden on the dialogue to convey the urgency of what's unfolding. There, too, has Rogers ceded the instincts of his inner playwright to his inner humanitarian. "A man who tells all is naked, a naked man is weak," intones one person early on. "It is easier to have an enemy than find a solution" opines someone later. More sage advice: "To speak truth is good, to speak all truth is not." To reflect the full scope of Hutu hatred: "AIDS is a Tutsi sickness." Last but not least: "Things that have not been seen... they are hard to imagine."

Phrases and speeches of such suffocating triteness do more harm than good for a play that must explain so much in a short period of time (the running time is two and a half hours). Even director Max Stafford-Clark can't escape the clichés late in the evening when a key speech about turning one's back on evil is directed to the audience instead of Jack's family. Tim Shortall's unit community-square set, graced by a statue of the Virgin Mary buttressed by a stained glass window, a gaping hole where another once was installed, is one of the few things not satisfied with merely meeting expectations.

Some of the performances shine through as well: Powell makes Linda a sophisticated victim in an untenable situation, while Robards and Stahl-David respectively employ restless hyperactivity and blandly libidinous detachment as their modus operandi. Cephas Jones, Chalk, and Parnell are moderately compelling advocates for their various points of view, and Washington brings an attractively calculated understatement to her pivotal role.

The Overwhelming doesn't have much use for that, though. It's a work that insists and subsists on the broadest strokes possible, forcing everyone to work too hard to achieve what should be an effortless outcome. That's why it's not surprising that Rogers misses so many obvious avenues for making his points in subtler, and ultimately bolder, ways.

One of the play's major themes is how communication breaks down as easily between those who share a language as between those who don't; Rogers finds some effective contrasts between scenes of Jack trying to convince others of the encroaching storm and the six-foot-thick barriers erected between conflicting speakers of English and French. But just as you start realizing that it's communication (or the lack thereof) that's bringing about the genocide, Rogers starts in again with his well-worn, stultifying speechifying. It's developments like this that prevent The Overwhelming from whelming much at all.

The Overwhelming
Through December 23
Roundabout Theatre Company Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Roundabout

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