Stop the presses! There’s finally a play in town that makes thinking a pleasure again. With its grim narrative about an American family swept up in the genocidal violence of civil war in 1994 Rwanda, J.T. Rogers’ “The Overwhelming” is not easy entertainment. But in this finely tooled production (originally helmed by Max Stafford-Clark for the National Theater), it makes for enjoyably suspenseful drama while provoking serious thought about American involvement in the internal affairs of foreign nations in a way that’s both unsettling and cathartic.
The play plunges right into the thick of things, opening in the capital city of Kigali just as the tribal animosities between Hutu and Tutsi are coming to a boil.
Focus of the drama goes straight to Jack Exley (Sam Robards), an American academic just arrived to research a book about his former college roommate, Joseph Gasana (Ron Cephas Jones), a Rwandan doctor who runs a clinic for children with AIDS.
To Jack’s confusion, his friend does not meet him at the airport. Instead, Charles Woolsey (James Rebhorn), a U.S. Embassy official, picks him up. The amiable apparatchik seems oddly unconcerned about Gasana’s absence, and is more taken aback when he learns Jack’s wife, Linda (Linda Powell), and son Geoffrey (Michael Stahl-David) are arriving the next day.
“Don’t worry” is Woolsey’s mantra, even as he snorts with astonishment at Jack’s ignorance of the volatile political climate. In Rebhorn’s droll perf, the false jollity of the man is even more alarming than his outbursts of cynical intelligence about what’s really going on in Rwanda — and about the U.S. government’s strict “hands off” policy. “We’re just a presence here,” he says.
Even for the period, the extent of Jack’s dim-witted naivete is hard to swallow — something that everyone, including his own Hutu house servant, comments on with a sneer of contempt. The U.N. military officer to whom Jack turns after learning Gasana has dropped out of sight and his clinic has been closed down, is polite but blunt: “You are seeking answers in a country you do not know, without a language to understand it,” he says, in words that should strike American auds with urgent immediacy.
After making allowances for the political climate of deep denial (comparable to, say, the official U.S. position on Pakistan), Jack is still an embarrassment. While Robards doesn’t make his ignorance more credible, he does win sympathy by virtue of the tenacity with which he clings to a blind belief in man’s humanity — even as soldiers are scaling his garden wall with machetes. This is no Ugly American of Graham Greene’s postwar era but the Earnest American of modern days. No less dumb, but more PC.
Jack’s family is every bit as clueless as he is about the genocidal turn the supposedly dormant civil war is about to take. His gullible wife, Linda, conducts interviews she plans to turn into a book without picking up on the political nuances people are dropping like bricks.
Although dignified by the warmth and intelligence of Powell’s perf, Linda is one of those romantic Americans who swoons over the beauty of a country she has barely seen and knows nothing about. Enchanted by the rhetoric of a Hutu government official (suavely played by Charles Parnell), she doesn’t question his demonizing of the Tutsi people.
With Linda caught up in Hutu militarism and Jack getting a crash course in ethnic cleansing from his Tutsi friend, who has surfaced from hiding, nobody is paying much attention to Geoffrey, Jack’s teenage son by his first wife. The kid’s only interest is in getting laid, and as mindless an ambition as that seems, scribe Rogers makes it a highly dramatic turning point for the acts of violence that finally educate this American family in the savage ways of the world.
Although the production is only moderately expressionist in performance style, the set is decked out for more stylized thunder, making it visually ungainly and at times difficult to play, even by a stand-up cast doubling in roles and speaking in polyglot tongues. Stafford-Clark’s solution is to throw plenty of illumination on the talky bits while pumping up the atmosphere of menace framing the intellectual debate.
As those babes-in-the-wood Exleys come to understand, the moral issues don’t look as clear when there’s blood dripping in your eyes.