nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
March 30, 2011
As part of Scotland Week, 59E59 offers Douglas Maxwell’s The Promise, a tale spun of shattered trust, unlikely saviors, and personal redemption. Maggie Brodie, an aging school teacher coaxed out of her second retirement to substitute for an elementary class in London, is introduced to Rosie, a new student from Somalia who refuses to speak and her community therefore suspects she is possessed by devils. Ms. Brodie vows to Rosie that nothing bad will happen to her on her watch, but to appease Rosie’s community, the school’s headmaster has approved a ritual during class to perform an exorcism of sorts. The fierce and curious connection Ms. Brodie feels to this girl, coupled with her conviction that any promise made to a student by a teacher should be upheld in tiny drops, fuels this 90-minute monologue like rivulets of gasoline on a raging fire.
As directed by Johnny McKnight, Joanna Tope as Maggie Brodie is nothing short of magnificent, though it is far from the ideal portrait of someone you might want teaching your child. No stranger to devils and perhaps in need of a solid exorcism herself, Ms. Brodie wields her feminine wiles and self-proclaimed gift for seduction like a loaded pistol. She mocks her coworkers and constituents, unsheathes a veritable weapon for a youth craft project (a long pair of tailoring sheers nicknamed “The Persuader”), threatens Rosie’s community leader with a stapler, and plots how she can access the flask she has stashed in her purse. With a staunch oath to protect the mute Rosie, Brodie seemingly calls up her own demons clamoring to be dealt with: the ravages of her alcoholism and that of her abusive father, the loss of a sister and an absent mother, and the acts of hate, pride, and religious oppression that have peppered her own experience. Tope deftly navigates this rough and varied topography with grace and even good humor.
McKnight’s precise vision for this production is aided and abetted by a strong design team. From the carefully speckled linoleum-like floor, bulletin board displays, cubbies filled with books and thermoses, and back flats that alternatively reveal children’s coat hooks and bathroom stalls, Lisa Sangster’s well-rendered set design misses no detail. Across the top of the proscenium, words like ark, girl, faith, cage, and bottle serve as hand-rendered signposts for the story to come. Sangster continues to set the tone for the character of Ms. Brodie with a costume in understated gray that—through blazing red shoes, an asymmetrical hem, and a pair of dangling earrings—conveys there is much more to this character than meets the eye.
As Ms. Brodie relives this one drastically life-altering day in the classroom in a mixture of past and present tense, Dave Shea’s light design veers from the soft illumination of innocence to the harsh shadow of unpleasant memory. Occasionally, the lights are augmented with constricting box shutters as though the light were pouring through an institutional window towards the story’s end. Tim Reid’s video design for the production adds a powerful contextual layer with a disembodied scrawl on a chalkboard, a confetti of light refracting from a piece of borrowed jewelry, a pool of blood, and the outline of a small girl having come to reveal the secret that has sent her into silence. Through it all, Karen MacIver's original violin and piano composition punctuated by the occasional bell chime conjures a feeling of innocence lost, remembrance and regret.
Demons exposed, Ms. Brodie must come to terms with the fact that regardless of who we think we are, society judges us by our actions and words. It is then perhaps no surprise after everything has been said and done that she ultimately chooses to adopt Rosie’s code of silence for herself. The Promise is not always easy to watch, just as swearing to hold a secret in confidence is not always easy to do. That said, this is an artfully rendered, masterfully acted production with an ending that—without giving too much away—could leave even the seasoned viewer speechless. It is a daring, disturbing covenant of quality worth experiencing.