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Theatre in Review: Sense of an Ending (59E59)

Heather Alicia Simms, Joshua David Robinson. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Playwright Ken Urban takes on the Hobbesian nightmare of the Rwanda genocide in Sense of an Ending, a kind of moral detective drama that manages to be simultaneously gripping and ultimately unsatisfying. Give him credit for staring into a real-life abyss, however; unlike, say, the manufactured horrors of the currently running Mercury Fur, Sense of an Ending aims to confront the dark heart of humanity that turned an African nation into a charnel house. If the enormity of the subject ultimately eludes Urban, this is nevertheless a brave and honorable attempt.

The play's premise is provocative in the extreme: It is 1999, five years after hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were slaughtered by their Hutu co-citizens. One particularly egregious episode involved the murder of Tutsis seeking sanctuary at a Catholic church in Kigali, the capital city. Two nuns, Sister Justina and Sister Alice, the only survivors, have been jailed for aiding and abetting the killings; they are to be transferred to Belgium, where they will stand trial. (This isn't a far-fetched idea: In 2001, two Benedictine nuns were convicted in a Belgian court of crimes very similar to those reported here, and were given life sentences.) Charles, a reporter from The New York Times, has obtained access to the nuns, hoping to tell their stories and also nab the front-page story his career sorely needs. Charles sees himself as acting, at least in part, as an advocate: "It's wrong what they're doing to these nuns, making them pay for the crimes of others," he says. "I don't know if they're entirely without blame. But my gut's telling me they're scapegoats. How could nuns burn women and children alive?"

It's not a question that seems to worry anyone but a surprisingly naïve American journalist. It's a bit hard to believe that Charles, whose career took him to Serbia in the '90s, would so easily believe that murder might end at the convent door. Then again, neither Justina nor Alice proves helpful when it comes to defending themselves; all they have to offer is a closed front of offended dignity and the argument that their vocations are enough to guarantee their innocence. They are also oddly cagey when it comes to discussing the details of that dreadful night.

Charles struggles to extract from the nuns a narrative that will convince the world of their innocence, unaware that there's a curveball headed his way: Paul, a soldier under the current regime (led by the Tutsi-run Rwandan Patriotic Front), who serves both as Charles' handler and the nuns' jailer, lives surreptitiously with Dusabi, the only Tutsi to survive the atrocities at the church. (Dusabi's wife survived, too, but eventually committed suicide; since then, he has been a recluse.) Dusabi is deeply traumatized and terrified of going public with his account -- but might he provide the evidence that could convict the nuns?

Sense of an Ending is tautly constructed out of brief scenes that expertly build suspense as they seemingly pull us closer to the truth. Charles finds himself tensely sparring with Paul, who is convinced of the nuns' guilt and is suspicious of bleeding-heart American reporters. ("In America, all the blacks are comedians," Paul says, goading Charles, who has no sense of humor, into telling a joke that bombs horribly.) Charles' interviews with the nuns take on intriguing cat-and-mouse dimensions, particularly after he starts talking to them one-on-one; Justina continues to stonewall him while the far more vulnerable and innocent Alice reveals an ugly streak of prejudice that will not help her in court. In the play's most stunning sequence, Dusabi offers Charles his account of the killings, rendering his experience in such precise detail that the reporter is left crying out in agony.

It's around this point that one begins to suspect that the subject matter is just too big, too complex, too disturbing to be contained in Urban's compact dramatic format. Neither Justina nor Alice is made to fully face the events for which they are imprisoned; for members of a religious order, they are surprisingly lacking in moral curiosity. Urban engineers a confrontation between Dusabi and Justina, but it falls short of a complete moral reckoning and it ends in a resolution that feels pat and unearned. It doesn't help that Urban leaves a lot of plot danglers: What role did Father Neromba, the church's pastor, play in the killings and what is the significance of the vision that he had the evening before? What about the fact that Charles' career is threatened by a plagiarism scandal? And what about his affair with his editor at the Times? All of these points are brought up, then abruptly dropped.

Still, under Adam Fitzgerald's tightly coiled direction, there are several striking performances. Heather Alicia Simms and Dana Marie Ingraham make a formidable pair of mystery women as Justina and Alicia; Simms' Justina is especially powerful when her moral certainty starts to crumble when coming face-to-face with Dusabi. The gifted Hubert Point-Du Jour captures Paul's military bearing as well as his deep-dyed skepticism about both the nuns and Charles' efforts at getting at the truth about them. Danyon Davis handles Dusabi's searing narrative with authentic power. As Charles, Joshua David Robinson wrestles with a fuzzily conceived and largely passive character who gets sidelined during the climax, but in his best moments he nails his character's moral confusion.

Fitzgerald has also obtained inventive work from his designers. David L. Arsenault's set uses a three-sided configuration with, at one end, a pair of church doors that open only during a final coup de théâtre that features fine lighting by Travis McHale. An especially eerie touch is the laundry line that hovers overhead, bearing what appears to be the clothing of the dead. Hunter Kaczorowski's costumes, including nuns' habits, military uniforms, and various types of casual wear, are solidly character-specific. The sound designer, Christian Frederickson, is especially good at creating barely audible undertones of ambient sounds that fill out each location (including the prison and a bar where the men hang out).

The title notwithstanding, a powerful, satisfying ending is exactly what Sense of an Ending is missing. Definitive answers may not be possible when dealing with an atrocity such as this, but Urban's script needs to delve more deeply into the question of what turns seemingly civilized people into savages. There's plenty of food for thought here, but Katori Hall's Our Lady of Kibeho, which also examines the Rwandan genocide through the prism of the Catholic Church, remains the best dramatic work on the subject. --David Barbour

(26 August 2015)

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