It’s not easy, of course, to create a warm piece of documentary theater out of genocide; Linden does so by drawing humor from the cultural divide between Juliette, the young Rwandan, and Simon, the blocked middle-aged Englishman who serves as authorial stand-in — and by pulling the rug out from under some of our Western assumptions. Simon thinks he will give Juliette a treat in the way of a ride in his car; she mentally notes how shabby it is compared to that of her murdered physician father. The two take a picnic to the park where Juliette, repulsed by mozzarella, falls into a fit of laughter when Simon undertakes to eat a banana. In her country, she says with embarrassed amusement, only women and babies eat bananas. Linden told the Boston Globe that she made the writer-in-residence a man to add “frisson” to the relationship. But Simon’s never-acted-upon sexual attraction to young Juliette, which stimulates a new batch of poems, struck me as a distasteful distraction from the main event: guiding Juliette to unlocking the agonizing story that both arrests us and ameliorates her pain.
At Stoneham Theatre, artistic director Weylin Symes takes a strong, simple approach to the piece, which unfolds on and on either side of a wooden platform where mentor and student meet. Set designer Richard Chambers supplies a looming brick wall partly covered by what looks like a draped white sail, and sound designer David Wilson counteracts the starkness with a subtle mix of mostly African music. Owen Doyle brings an appropriate mix of modesty and condescension to the troubled poet, who’s torn between his own creative difficulties and a sincere desire to help the young woman whose life he can barely comprehend, either in Rwanda or in the cloistered limbo of her unprocessed-refugee status. And Dorcas Evelene Davis is wonderful as Juliette, her natural exuberance and pent-up anger and anguish as infectious as the rhythms of her accent.
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