The formidable Maggie Brodie has been teaching forty years. She has opinions, which are expressed reflexively, undiplomatically and with complete assurance, doesn’t suffer fools, and cares about the children who “bounce from me as if I were the bell and they were the sound.” Direct, pragmatic, and compassionate, she feels her calling is extremely simple to effect: “Every day tell them what you’re going to teach them. And do it. Every day, drop by drop, live up to the promise.” She has her father’s indomitable pride.
Maggie is surprisingly feminine and obviously sexual, neither attribute quite fitting her role in life. She’s large, but proportionately and attractively so. A not quite functional alcoholic, she’s also angry. Maggie Brodie is very, very angry.
Hired out of a second retirement to fill in for a class of six-year-olds, Miss Brodie takes an immediate dislike to young headmaster Ottoway whom she names “Call-Me-Doug” after a sign on his office desk. Call-Me-Doug sees himself as hip and forward thinking. He’s told her she’s thought of by staff as venerable. “Venerable I can live with,” comments Maggie dryly, “Vulnerable: never.” His second in command doesn’t fare much better. Maggie has named Poppy Sue “the mushroom,” because of her “dog-haired suit straight from Primark.”
Apparently the teacher is to have a new student in class, a Somali girl named Rosie (a name felt easier for the children to comprehend and pronounce than her given one) who is “an elective mute.” This morning, the students are to witness Rosie’s countrymen try to reach the child in a ceremony Maggie perceives as exorcism. The two school officials feel it could be a part of the children’s cultural development. Maggie is appalled. And thirsty.
Immediately protective of the little girl for reasons revealed later, Maggie feels inappropriately, almost metaphysically connected to Rosie. This disinters her past, provoking a series of surprising encounters and an unpredictable climax. That the play was inspired by true events increases its emotional impact.
The Promise is a ninety minute monologue. Scene changes are indicated by light and music and by the actress’s sometimes seismic shifts. She addresses the audience in the telling of the tale and characters when they are present, stepping in and out of narrative. Her focus is such that invisible participants often become spookily real.
Maggie is an extremely complex role. On the one hand, she’s fatalistically driven by anger and shame to repeatedly put herself in harm’s way, self-medicating with action and alcohol. On the other, she chooses to work with small children believing she might keep them from harm, fulfilling at least one promise over which she has control. As the drama progresses, her skins peel like an onion.
Joanna Tope is exhausting. She enters with nervous, antagonistic energy, plays every stage from irritation to hysterical fury, then withdraws to the dimming light contained in a manner so willful you can feel her vibrate. Her conversations with Rosey are remarkable for the concentrated energy she/Maggie, projects onto the child. It’s as if the empty space might manifest an apparition. A sexual encounter is so viscerally portrayed—with an invisible man—it causes shuddering. When Maggie loses definition between interior dialogue and narrative, we feel her losing grasp on reality as if in the room. We are in the room. Thanks to Tope (and the playwright). Though her delivery is a bit fast at the start, the actress finds her pacing and takes us for a rip-roaring, gut-wrenching ride. Brava.
(Someone should send her to a spa when the show closes).
Playwright Douglas Maxwell has written a tour de force of one woman’s journey from Hell to Hell. The trajectory is acute, painful and believable.
Director Johnny McKnight holds a cyclone by its tail for ninety minutes. Indications of alcoholic craving are bodily expressed. Memories well up before they’re shared. Absent people seem present. Maggie’s unstoppable self immolation is breathtaking.
Lisa Sangster’s imaginative set is at the same time rigid and changeable, much like the protagonist. It works beautifully. Her outfit for Maggie is spot on—especially the red patent leather shoes.
The Promise by Douglas Maxwell
Directed by Johnny McKnight
With Joanna Tope
59E59 Street Theaters
%9 East 59th Street
212-279-4200 or www.59e59.org
Through April 17, 2011