It's been said that every problem or challenge is an opportunity in disguise. Of course, that's usually said by someone who is rarely challenged and faces few problems. But sometimes, an old cliché rings true.
Consider, for instance, the difficulties a playwright and theater company face when trying to deal with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They can't stage realistic carnage or capture the mass terror evident in films like Hotel Rwanda and Beyond the Gates. Onstage, the horror must be distilled to a very personal level, in hopes that the audience can absorb one person's tragedy and envision the larger cataclysm.
This has been accomplished with telling effect in Dobama Theatre's exhaustingly titled I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda. This small diamond of a play by Sonja Linden employs just two actors, but they convey a richly nuanced view of bottomless hatreds, and they explore the healing virtues of self-exploration through writing.
Simon is a frustrated middle-aged poet and wannabe novelist who has taken a job at a London refugee center, hoping to teach recent arrivals the healing art of writing. But he is surprised when his first client, twenty-ish Juliette, arrives with a completed book — already done and ready for his analysis — about the atrocities her family experienced in Rwanda. Trouble is, it's written in Banyarwanda, her native tongue.
So begins their relationship, awkward and confusing at times. She had expected to work with "a man of letters," but she is put off by the lack of books with Simon's name on them in his office and by his less-than-elegant demeanor. Once her manuscript has been translated into English, Simon admires her collection of facts, but encourages her to bring out her feelings about what happened.
Director Brian Zoldessy artfully guides his actors through a series of short scenes — featuring both dialogue and monologues — which reveal, over 90 minutes, the immense issues these characters confront. These moments appear, often in small pools of light, then vanish into blackness. Juliette peers into a mirror in her drab room and sees only bits and pieces of her family, but she can't see herself. In a different way, Simon is disconnected from himself and is at a dead end in his writing endeavors.
What seems like a trite matchup of two lost individuals is rescued by Linden's refusal to bask in easy sentiments or misplaced romantic undertones. Yes, Simon and Juliette wind up helping each other, but it all unspools naturally and with a bracing dose of sly wit. Juliette possesses the instant, spot-on candor of a cultural newcomer, and she is able to pierce Simon's wounded self-regard with a word or a glance. At times she calls him a scribbler, using the word he taught her to describe the random jottings he wanted her to employ in accessing her feelings.
As Juliette, Andrea Belser is a revelation. Though she telegraphs some reactions a bit too broadly, she takes time to bring meaning out of the playwright's deceptively simple words. On the anniversary of her family's atrocity, she slowly sets out candles and remembers each murdered person by name. Quietly, the agony of her loss is brought to bear with thunderous power. And when Simon finally manages to coax Juliette into talking about the events of that horrible day, Belser is nothing less than devastating.
In the less emotionally loaded role of Simon, Scott Miller so excellently embodies this mediocre writer that his clammy, flop-sweat-soaked soul is almost tangible. When he describes his work-in-progress, a postmodern exercise in which he has decided to eliminate the letter "i," it is simultaneously amusing and pathetic. But there is also nobility to Simon's struggles, both with his unseen family at home and with the enigmatic Juliette.
Tyson Rand's simply designed set features a couple of boxes and vertical units in shades of gray, with hints of a London skyline and a Rwandan jungle. This staging helps convey Simon and Juliette's drab surroundings and will travel well when the production hits the road after its stint at Tri-C East.
When it's over, both Juliette and Simon realize they will never fully understand each other's lives. But that's all right. Their meeting is a blessing for each, as it is for the audience members who witness it.