In Humberto Dorado’s powerful Colombian one-hander “The Keening,” receiving its English-language preem at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., the audience meets an unnamed woman who is a “keener,” a hired mourner who cries for us all. But in Marissa Chibas’ breathtakingly honest perf, this unnamed woman is not just an embodiment of mass grief but a chronicler of suffering, a witness to the truth and an overseer of the rituals of death and justice.
It’s a deceptively simple story with a shattering climax, beautifully crafted and carefully measured in text and perf. Play should be of great interest to venues looking for not just political but potent fare, especially if it’s as well executed as this production.
Character enters a cold, spare space that could be a morgue, a hospital or a mortuary (a haunting environment by Mexican scenic and lighting designer Alejandro Luna that thrusts out into the audience). The middle-aged woman sets down her shopping bag filled with flowers, ties back her hair and puts on a rubberized apron, then begins mopping the floor and wiping down the stainless steel table with disinfectant. But her intention to cleanse goes far beyond the confines of the room.
Her tale begins matter-of-factly, as she recalls growing up an orphan, marrying a much older doctor when she was a teenager and learning about life — and medicine — from her beloved husband. Gradually aud learns of the violence, fear and chaos that lie just below the surface of everyday life in Colombia. When her husband dies, the woman discovers that he was banished from his village as a younger man after giving medical aid to a revolutionary. Because of that act, his last wish to be buried in his hometown cannot be realized.
But being a woman of purpose and conviction, she sets out to pay tribute to her husband. As played by Chibas, she is both an ordinary and an extraordinary woman who learns to do what she has to in order to survive, protect and honor.
“I have to do everything on my own, isn’t that true? Everything,” she says at play’s beginning and end. The story told between these statements is the journey she travels for herself as well as for her country.
Following her husband’s death, the woman finds a new life with her two sons when she meets a planidera (professional mourner) who takes them to her village of Aguacatal in northern Colombia. This place becomes the woman’s new happy home for a time. But the town finds itself in the crossfire of smugglers, guerrillas and paramilitarists, part of Colombia’s half-century history of continuous violence fueled by the drug trade. She returns to her old town, where she takes on “this strange occupation” and finds a successful living amid the dying.
As the woman onstage begins to ceremoniously light a candle, burn incense and pull the petals from a bouquet of roses, her tale darkens. When her now-grown and emotionally remote son cautions her one day not to return to her friends in Aguacatal, she says she suspected tragedy to come. Her efforts to defy him and warn her friends are harrowing and ultimately unsuccessful. When she learns that the massacre of village men was led by her son, she is forced finally to go beyond her tears to take ownership and action.
The work made its Colombia preem in 2003 as “Con el corazon abierto” (With a Heart Wide Open) with Colombian actress Vicky Hernandez. It loses little in the translation here; the language is wonderfully spare and effective.
Nicholas Montero again helms with great sensitivity, while American actress Chibas gives a perf that seems modest at first glance. But it’s in this direct, natural simplicity that lies its strength and soul.
Because the character does not address (or pander to) the audience directly, there’s a touch of distance in the telling. Are we listening to her unconscious? Is she simply talking to herself — or to God? Or is she just an articulate madwoman, overcome by a life of overwhelming grief? Regardless, we are eavesdroppers to her guileless self-narrative tale, which gives the story its credibility. She is not trying to convince anyone of anything. She is merely relaying the tale out loud in order to give its characters a voice and acknowledge her country’s complexity, compliance and tragic history.
“We all occupy a place in the world and we should leave it as we found it — perfectly clean,” she says early in the play. “Aseptic. Not because of hygiene. But out of conviction.” It’s the quiet conviction of the writing, directing and playing that makes “The Keening” a powerhouse of a play and a prayer.