Off Broadway Review: ‘Our Lady of Kibeho’ by Katori Hall

Nneka Okafor, Mandi Masden, Joaquina Kalukango, Starla Benford; Owiso Odera, Bowman Wright; Brent Jennings, Niles Fitch.

Playwright Katori Hall (“The Mountaintop,” “Hurt Village”) came up with an ingenious method for dramatizing a national tragedy in a way that would make it accessible to audiences who might otherwise be overwhelmed by the events. In “Our Lady of Kibeho,” which was based on real events, the scribe anticipates the 1994 genocide that decimated the population of Rwanda by depicting a 1981 religious miracle that seemed to foretell it. But after pulling off this neat trick, she falls into the trap of the overwritten/underwritten play by dwelling much too long on the miraculous curtain-raiser and avoiding the main event.

Legend has it that Rwanda is so lovely, God spends his vacations there. Peter Nigrini conveys that sense of beauty and tranquility by projecting images of a lush green mountain landscape arching over Rachel Hauck’s simple whitewashed set of a Catholic girls’ school. The year is 1981, a time far removed from the civil war that broke out a decade later and the subsequent genocide in which Hutu tribesmen slaughtered upwards of a half-million members of elite Tutsi clans in less than 100 days.

There are some hints of hostility between the Hutu and Tutsi members of the student body. But for the most part, these young girls in their modest uniforms are the very picture of innocence, getting schoolgirl crushes on their handsome pastor, Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera), and chafing under strict teaching nuns like Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford). That changes abruptly when a student named Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor) begins having visions of the Virgin Mary. Punished by her disbelieving teachers, threatened by her father, tormented by her classmates, the poor girl becomes a pariah — until two more girls become swept up in the miracle. And once all three of them have been vetted by Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith), a worldly emissary from the Vatican, they become local celebrities and a huge tourist attraction that puts their little town on the map.

But instead of sharing more of the substance of the prophecies and giving up some specifics about what’s in store for the country, Hall stalls at this apparition stage, lingering over the miracles as theatrical events and giving elaborate (and impractical) stage directions on how to stage them. Under the circumstances, helmer Michael Greif gives fair value for his services. He’s been particularly resourceful at going outside the proscenium and into the auditorium to stage the circus-like atmosphere at the visitations.

But Greif has been far too indulgent of both the playwright’s directorial demands and the performers’ overblown acting. An audience should never be too far ahead of the story or of character development. But we are, and it’s a chore to sit through the repetitive scenes of schoolgirl hysteria and adult foolishness. We’re ready for stronger stuff.

Off Broadway Review: 'Our Lady of Kibeho' by Katori Hall

Pershing Square Signature Center; 294 seats; $25 top. Opened Nov. 16, 2014. Reviewed Nov. 13. Running time: TWO HOURS, 25 MIN.

Production: A Signature Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Katori Hall.

Creative: Directed by Michael Greif. Sets, Rachel Hauck; costumes, Emily Rebholz, lighting, Ben Stanton; sound, Matt Tierney; projections, Peter Nigrini; original music & music direction, Michael McElroy; production stage manager, Michael McGoff.

Cast: Nneka Okafor, Mandi Masden, Joaquina Kalukango, Starla Benford; Owiso Odera, Bowman Wright; Brent Jennings, Niles Fitch.

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