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New York City Theater

"Our Lady of Kibeho"
Signature Center

For some, watching hysterical adolescent girls who see visions might dredge up memories of “The Crucible.” Others, more devout, might recall “The Song of Bernadette.” No matter, for Katori Hall takes no sides in her strong, absorbing new work, “Our Lady of Kibeho.”

It’s 1981 and in Kibeho, Rwanda, three Catholic schoolgirls, dubbed ”The Trinity,” relate how they saw the Virgin Mary whose instructions exhorted the adolescents to spread the word of love – no hunger, no war. The girls are sincere, the vision is benevolent. But when the stink of commercialism tries to exploit the vision by way of souvenir T-shirts and trinkets, Mary goes ballistic, hauling down a blood-filled storm that presages the Rwandan genocide.

Hall had less luck with her Broadway work, “The Mountaintop,” another fact-based play, which chronicled the final day and night of Martin Luther King, Jr. In “Our Lady,” she shows skill at plotting, atmosphere and theatrics. Instead of capitalizing on a volatile situation by commenting on the event, she examines it from all sides: the innocent girls, an empathetic priest, a doubting nun, an angry father and a skeptical examiner sent by the Vatican.

Prejudices reveal themselves: the girls are unconcerned, even ignorant about doctrine they neither understand nor care about. “We are not cannibals,” one of them says in responding to the examiner’s, “Is the Eucharist Christ’s body and blood?” The father of another is confirmed in his belief that “Book learning makes a girl go crazy.” The school’s head priest is confused, the head nun is envious that the vision appeared to mere girls instead of to her (“I am not worthy of God’s grace”), while the town bishop believes their “lies” will lead them to perdition before seeing dollar signs in anticipation of  the number of visitors sure to come.

Another element is the rivalry between Hutus vs. Tutsis, farmers vs. upper-class herdsmen. We know the conflict ends in terrifying genocide even as Mary’s message is meant to unite not divide. Soon, however, Rwanda, “a land of love where God goes on vacation,” will run with terror.

“Our Lady of Kibeho” is a lovely play, poetic and foreboding, beautifully produced and acted with authenticity.  Michael Greif’s delicate yet impassioned direction balances otherworldly melodrama with a lyricism that transcends belief or doubt.

-- David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 10, 2014

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