Review by Tulis McCall
(4 Apr 2011)
Maggie Brody has a lot on her plate. For starters she has been reduced from a full time position to being a substitute teacher in London. Then there is the headmaster, a fellow Scott, who refers to Maggie in the Second Person - as The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie. He also saves copies of The Daily Record, a Scottish newspaper, for Maggie to read so that she can be reminded of home. Maggie doesn't want to be reminded of home, if you please. And finally, Maggie receives the news that her new student from Somalia – whose name is Nadifa but who will be called Rosie - will be joined by people from her “community” for a small ritual when she arrives. A small ritual that is, well, an exorcism of sorts. It's wrong all around, and Maggie is about to call a halt to much of it.
Bad day in Black Rock for Maggie Brody!
As she takes us through this particular day Maggie Brody lets it slip that she is off balance and always has been. As a child she remembers seeing Montgomery Clift in a Western. She remembers the shot of him swaggering with his holster and realized that she didn’t have a little girl’s crush on him. She wanted to BE him. She wanted that sexual aliveness to be in her every move and every choice – and in many ways she got what she wished for. She also falls into drink which is her refuge and her despair. She is a woman mourning the loss of her sister to a convent, the existence of her wretched father, and the stunning passage of time that has left her with only vague memories of her lovers. She is alone and sad. Maggie has washed up on the shore, and the only thing left for her to do is take a stand, one last stand, against the ritual to out the Devil from her newest student. It is part of her promise as a teacher and as a newly christened defender.
One-person shows are a challenging art form. I know because I have done them. And the question is always – who is the actor talking to and why? This was never answered in The Promise because it is not in the script for one, and for another, Joanna Tope never really looks at us. This is uncanny because she is looking at us, but at the same time she never makes direct eye contact. She addresses us without committing to us.
This is a choice that leaves this production off balance in a way not intended I believe. The text by Douglas Maxwell is a difficult one. Its best element is that it is for a woman in her 50’s or even older. This is a woman with a history – albeit an untidy one – that she is cobbling into a sort of righteousness. But I never completely understood why it was being told. Who are we, the audience, in this situation? We are the supporting cast, and as such we need to know where we fit in.
Joanna Tope is a wonderful actor who possesses precision and skill. It was a pleasure to watch her, and I hope I will have that opportunity again. But in this production – part directorial choice and part text – Tope was removed a bit too far, so that the wallop delivered at the play’s climax didn’t make the contact intended. Maggie’s story is a sad tale that missed being a tragedy of Olympic proportions by inches.
And handing out a writer’s background note as the audience leaves the theatre is of little aid. If you have to explain your play, best to have another look at what is missing in the text.
"While the writing is too overwrought to be fully convincing, Tope's brilliant performance is a riveting force to behold."
Frank Scheck for NY Post
"The best reason to see "The Promise" is to be introduced to actor Joanna Tope, who not only makes unreasonable things credible but does so with a determination that burns. With her silver hair, saucy swagger, and impeccable diction, the talented Tope is most welcome to New York stages."
Karl Levett for Back Stage