THEATER and social activism are frequent bedfellows, but their mating is often a strident conjoining of good intentions and didacticism.
However, when the fusion is artfully realized, the result can be genuinely cathartic. A case in point is the Colony Theatre’s production of “I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda,” Sonja Linden’s moving two-character play about the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
As a long-term writer in residence at the London-based Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, Linden set up a “testimonial” program in which survivors of torture could express their traumas by writing about them -- a tactic that proved therapeutic for many participants. “Young Lady From Rwanda” was inspired by a Rwandan refugee whom Linden met in that program.
At this juncture in our global misfortunes, psychically benumbed Western observers may be overwhelmed by the sheer aggregate of worldwide suffering. For many, the dismal current situation in Sudan has already eclipsed the mind-boggling human toll in Rwanda, where about 800,000 were slain in a massive ethnic purging.
Linden’s gentle humanity makes us feel the tragedy anew, not by bludgeoning us with statistics, but by introducing us to a single, fully realized individual, Juliette (Erica Tazel), a Tutsi survivor who has fled to London.
When the action commences, the genocide is already five years in the past, but for Juliette, the pain continues. She hopes to exorcise past ghosts by writing about them. For help, she approaches Simon (Louis Lotorto), a struggling poet who has taken a job teaching writing at a London refugee center. Gradually, Juliette reveals the details of her personal history to Simon -- and it is a devastating revelation.
The interaction of the older male pedant with a beautiful, untutored young pupil has a familiar “Educating Rita” ring to it, as does the unrequited sexual frisson Simon feels. In fact, one wonders why Linden opted to make Juliette’s mentor male in the first place. And if one were being particularly persnickety, one might even question whether Simon’s romantic yearnings for his pupil are a dramatic asset or an annoying distraction. In any event, that subplot certainly emphasizes the striking divide between Simon’s self-involvement and Juliette’s more elemental concerns.
Whatever the irregularities in his character, Lotorto cleverly smooths over them in a cerebral yet sympathetic portrayal that is effectively downplayed, as is director David Rose’s quiet staging -- the perfect counterpoint to the play’s charged emotional content.
David Potts’ stark, gray set and Don Guy’s gelid lighting nicely underscore Juliette’s wrenching transition from sun-soaked affluence to her present penury and isolation.
However, the most crucial component of this piece is Juliette, and Tazel’s performance does not disappoint. Achingly real, Tazel’s Juliette subtly penetrates our emotional defenses and makes us connect to her loss with visceral immediacy.
‘I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda’
Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Call theater for exceptions.
Ends: Sept. 17
Price: $32 to $42
Info: (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15, or www.colonytheatre.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes