'Rwanda' profoundly moving

The first thing you’ll probably notice upon reading the title of the new play by Burbank’s Colony Theatre Company, "I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda," is its ungainly length. The second thing is that it has the word Rwanda in it.

The playwright is very aware that both of these facts could be intimidating. But don’t let either dissuade you from seeing this beautiful, funny and profoundly moving tale of healing and renewal.

Playwright Sonja Linden does intend to wake people up to the plight of victims of the Rwandan genocide, but does so with a gentle hand. It is a difficult subject to tackle and the script could have been rife with gory statistics that serve only to increase our guilt about not doing anything about the genocide or not knowing enough about it in the first place.

Linden seems to understand that using words that cause a clutch of guilt in the viewer’s chest closes down his or her ability to open their heart. She has an instinctive, almost magical way of tiptoeing across a difficult point rather than driving it home. She insists the audience members be as sensitive as the actors. It makes for an emotionally pleasing experience.

There are only two actors in the play. But there is no need for more. Louis Lotorto plays Simon, a burned-out middle-aged poet, and Erica Tazel plays the innocent yet proud Juliette, recently arrived in London, a refugee from her home country of Rwanda. They have a powerful chemistry together. It’s not exactly a sexual chemistry, but one that exudes mutual respect, genuine amusement and inexplicable caring. This chemistry, along with sensitive direction by David Rose and of course the splendid script, gives this otherwise heavy subject-matter buoyancy and joyfulness.

Simon works at a refugee center where he takes a special interest in helping Juliette rewrite her memoirs of the harrowing experiences she and her family had in Rwanda. It is a process both excruciating and cleansing for her and, at times, for Simon as well.

Tazel, as Juliette, is a disarming mix of contradictions. At close to 20 years old, Juliette is full of childlike truthfulness but also streetwise suspiciousness. She is frighteningly trusting, yet determined to be self-reliant. Hungry for life, yet she eats next to nothing. She’s mischievous and serious and strong and fragile and totally captivating.

It’s no wonder Simon is uneasy about his feelings for her. Are they inappropriate? He can’t help but care about her deeply, yet he’s a married man as old as her father. Lotorto is excellent as Simon. He’s particularly good at making the simple set (some carpeted risers and a few props) seem like real places through body language. And he has a way of clearly conjuring up his absent wife through his reenactments of arguments.

Juliette says, "In Rwanda, we love each other." This play is about one person reaching out to another person in an act of love to help them overcome pain. In the end, Juliette declares that she feels "clean," free from the headaches and nightmares. And instead of scolding the world for forsaking the victims, she asks us to open our hearts and share their pain a little.

LISA DUPUY of La Crescenta is a freelance writer who formerly worked on KCET’s "Storytime."

FYI

WHAT: “I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda” written by Sonja Linden

WHERE: The Colony Theatre Company, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 17 (additional performances are at 3 p.m. Aug. 26 and Sept. 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 7 and 14)

TICKETS: $32 to $42, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups

CONTACT: (818) 558-7000

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