A story of faith and doubt after the Virgin Mary appears to a trio of Rwandan schoolgirls.
“MOST IMPORTANT NEW PLAY OF THE YEAR!”
Christianity is the great blind spot of American theater. Most Americans believe in the resurrection of Jesus and the existence of heaven and hell—but in most American plays, these beliefs are treated either as proofs of invincible ignorance or as signs of black-hearted villainy. It says everything about the gap between who we are in life and how we look onstage that the best-known shows of the past decade in which religious believers of any sort figured prominently were “The Book of Mormon” and “Doubt.” So it is stop-press news that the most important new play of the year to date, Katori Hall’s “Our Lady of Kibeho,” not only tells the story of a modern miracle but dares to suggest that it might really have happened.
Actually, it’s not quite right to say that “Our Lady of Kibeho” is about a miracle. Rather, its subject is what is known to theologians as an “apparition.” In 1981 and 1982, three Rwandan schoolgirls, all of them devout Catholics, claimed to have seen and heard the Virgin Mary. Their last apparition was a terrible vision of apocalyptic violence that was later interpreted as a prophecy of the genocidal convulsion in which, a decade later, as many as a million Rwandans died at the hands of their fellow countrymen. The Catholic Church subsequently investigated these apparitions and declared them in 2001 to be “authentic.”
Our Lady of Kibeho (Irene Diamond Stage, Pershing Square Signature Center, Through Dec. 7) is the stuff of high drama, and Ms. Hall has used it thrillingly well, shaping the real-life story of the girls of Kibeho (one of whom was later killed in the Kibeho Massacre of 1995) into a tightly written play that places a chokehold on your attention right from the opening line. It’s tempting to say that you can’t go wrong with material like this, but part of what makes “Our Lady of Kibeho” so impressive is that Ms. Hall circumvents all kinds of possible dramaturgical pitfalls along the way. Yes, the play has a political background, one that she sketches with crisp efficiency—but “Our Lady of Kibeho” never turns into a rant. Instead of lecturing us about tribal sectarianism in Africa, Ms. Hall sticks to her story: What did the girls claim to see, and did they see it?
Ms. Hall and Michael Greif, the director, have opted to show the girls’ visions onstage, leaving it to you to decide whether they were fantasies. No spoilers here: I’ll say only that it’s been a long time since any playwright rang down her first-act curtain with a louder bang. Just as surprising, though, is her willingness to work on a large scale. “Our Lady of Kibeho” calls for a cast of 15, huge by present-day standards, and Mr. Greif’s staging, if not quite monumental, is most definitely grand in its theatrical effects (including a climactic crowd scene that makes cunning use of the audience). Much credit goes to Rachel Hauck, one of our best set designers, for constructing a stage-filling Catholic girls’ school in the Rwandan countryside that looks real without stooping to rigidly literal realism.
Nneka Okafor, Mandi Masden and Joaquina Kalukango play the three visionaries so convincingly that you’ll soon forget that they are, in fact, seasoned actors: They behave just like giggling schoolgirls who’ve been invaded and tra
nsformed by the supernatural. Owiso Odera, Starla Benford and Brent Jennings are likewise credible as the school’s head priest and nun and the town bishop, the last of whom is properly skeptical of the girls but no less aware of what it might mean were his impoverished diocese to be recognized as the site of a miracle.
The most interesting performance is, not surprisingly, elicited by the most interesting character. Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith) is an investigative priest dispatched from Rome by the Holy See to determine whether Alphonsine, Anathalie and Marie-Claire are anything more than hysterical teenagers. Having exposed a few too many phony miracles for his soul’s good, he has become a doubter in spite of himself: “Belief in the impossible trumps even the power of believing in God, which is in itself quite impossible.” Mr. Smith gets him so right that you’ll be thrilled by the soft-spoken subtlety of his impersonation.
As for the play itself, one keeps waiting for Ms. Hall to lapse into the sniggering condescension with which the enlightened skeptic regards benighted believers—but it never happens. To be sure, one or two of her characterizations are obvious, especially that of the head nun, who smacks a bit too much of the cranky Hollywood-style Mother Superior. Nevertheless, the personalities and experiences of all of the characters, like their faith, are presented with complete seriousness.
So…did it happen? You’ll have to make up your own mind about that. But if you’re a gambler, take a flier on Ms. Hall to nail next year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. I didn’t care for “The Mountaintop,” her last play, but “Our Lady of Kibeho” is the kind of issue-driven, ethnically flavored story that the Pulitzer judges love—and it also happens to be one hell of an exciting show. That’s a miracle all by itself.