The Overwhelming

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday November 2, 2009

John ADEkoje (Samuel Mizinga)  and the cast of The Overwhelming
John ADEkoje (Samuel Mizinga) and the cast of The Overwhelming  (Source:Conpany One)

Company One opens its eleventh season with a production of J.T. Rogers' The Overwhelming, a babes-in-the-woods story about an American family in Rwanda on the eve of the 1994 massacre in which Hutus rose up, machetes in hand, to slaughter Tutsis and moderates of their own ethnic group.

Political Science professor Jack Exley (Doug Bowen-Flynn) is writing a book about individuals around the world whose efforts make a difference and help shape history. He chooses to focus his book on the efforts of his old college roommate, Joseph Gasana (Cedric Lilly), who runs a pediatric AIDS clinic in the village of Kigali. Though Jack and Joseph have been exchanging letters regularly, when Jack arrives in Kigali, there's no trace of Joseph--and he's told that no one by that name ever worked at a clinic.

That's only the first layer in a confusing stratigraphy of innuendo, indirect warnings, and a complicated history that pits villagers against one another and allies members of Jack's family with people from different factions: son Geoffrey (Gabe Goodman) becomes fast friends with Gerard (Troy Bullock), the servant who comes with the house, while Jack's novelist wife Linda (Lyndsay Allyn Cox) begins an almost flirtatious friendship with a member of the interim government, the big and personable Samuel (John Oluwole Adekoje). Even as the country tilts toward chaos, tensions within the family--between Jack and his son, between Geoffrey and his stepmother--exert a strain on the bonds of trust that should be secure between them, but which are undermined by events and secrets.

While the play does address national and historic themes, it returns time and again to the family unit, drawing uncomfortable parallels and eventually demonstrating that the choices ethnic groups make may not be so dissimilar to the decisions that families embrace. Jack worries about the safety of his friend and the future of his career--which depends on the writing of his book--submerged forces and counter-forces the family don't comprehend are at work, and Jack's American optimism and triumphalist vision of democracy continue to blind him to the dangers mounting up all around him and his family.

Rogers' play delves into the subject of the genocide much more deeply than merely condemning the brutality of the campaign, or assigning easy categories such as "perpetrator" and "villain" to either side. With cunning care, the playwright moves his characters across the game board of politics, showing us each person in a spectrum of different lights: Dr. Gasana is a hero, but he's also seen as a killer; even Gerard takes pains not to let it be known that he speaks English, lest he be taken for a Tutsi and killed in the tide of bloodshed that everyone--except for Jack and his family, that is--knows is coming.

Sean Cote's set is deceptively simple, but effective: sliding doors part to extend the stage, and serve the dramatic purpose of swallowing characters--or partially opening to allow a glimpse of a murder victim. The sound design by Arshun Gailus rounds out the illusion of place, whether the setting is a crowded restaurant, a bar with a bordello in the back, or a police station: similarly, Kennth Helvig's lighting design evokes a coldly institutional look, or replicates a jittery flickering when the power fails and the family have to rely on a generator.

But the play is not as overwhelming as the title implies. Rogers has built plenty of humor into the script, and the way he ties family drama tightly to his sketch of Rwanda in the spring of 1994 allows for scenes that are both compelling and wittily entertaining; in one moment of parallel action, Jack offers a policeman a bribe to secure information about the missing Dr. Gasana, even as Geoffrey, in the bar's back room, receives oral sex from a prostitute. In other scenes, Jack and Geoffrey struggle to find commonality: the boy has only recently come to living with his father and Linda following his mother's death in a car crash--a tragedy that gives Geoffrey more in common with Gerard, whose own family have all been murdered in an episode of ethnic unrest.

Director Shawn Lacount finds the laughter, as well as the pathos, in Jack's wide eyes and his equally wide streak American optimism and naivete; Company One founding member Mason Sand plays two different characters, and dons two very different accents and affects, to serve as a pair of counterbalances to Jack, and Peter Brown's character Charles Woolsey, an American bureaucrat, fulfills a similar function. We laugh at Jack a little, but we also laugh at ourselves with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps rueing the high cost of our dreams of American supremacy and democratic ascendance as well as the limited benefits our generous, but often ill-informed, impulses have across the globe.

The Overwhelming plays through November 21 at the Boston Center for the Arts, located at 539 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End.

Tickets cost $30-$35 for Thursday and Sunday performances, and $33-$38 for Friday and Saturday performances. Students pay $15 for all shows (valid ID required); senior citizens pay $30.

Performance schedule: Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Running time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.