Burying the Bones
January 27, 2012
The Rogue in Detroit Repertory Theatre, Reviews

The saying goes that the truth will set you free, but nowhere is it written that the endeavor will be painless. Playwright M.E.H. Lewis uses the lens of South African apartheid to examine the dually harmful and healing capacities of truth in the wake of atrocity in Burying the Bones. In the Michigan premiere at Detroit Repertory Theatre, director Leah Smith fearlessly probes the staggering cost of revelation; the evocative and thorny result is a demonstration that in spite of the human tendency to seek liberation in redemption and forgiveness, our most noble attempts to correct past wrongs remain agonizingly imperfect and incomplete.

Two years after the democratic election of Nelson Mandela marks the beginning of the end of apartheid, the effects of institutionalized injustices and insurgent struggles still sting throughout the populace. It is 1996, and Mae Mxenges (Monica J. Palmer) is troubled nightly by the apparition of her missing husband, schoolteacher James (Lynch R. Travis). The visage claims to be his haunting spirit and implores her to retrieve and bury his remains; she, in turn, dismisses the presence as merely a bad dream bent on tricking her into believing that her husband is dead. The intimate confrontations between the two are often hindered by the actors’ faint hesitance regarding verbal and physical contact: the push-pull of Travis’s insistence on spousal familiarity against Palmer’s warring feelings of disbelief and longing strains to reach a comfortable groove of give and take between the performers. Nevertheless, Mae is convinced to inquire about James’s disappearance, and her subsequent journey toward the truth is fascinating and devastating enough to reward the viewer’s intellectual and emotional investment.

The heavy subject matter and varied perspectives are substantially bolstered by exceptional supporting performances. Madelyn Porter balances grim realism with self-preserving lightness as Cassandra, Mae’s gossipy sister and a politically dissident nurse whose objections fall secondary to income after her clinic is closed by brutal means. Cassandra’s work puts her in the heat of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, where the former law enforcer and Afrikaner Gideon Kroeg (Seth Amadei) has applied for amnesty, but defies the condition of total disclosure. Members of the public are permitted to provide statements and to inquire about loved ones as part of the hearings, as shown by the brief but expressive turn by witness Nelson Jones, Jr. The court, represented here by a pair of stern advocates (Terri Andrews and Nicole Michelle Haskins), draws out Gideon’s reluctant testimony, in the form of information that radically changes Mae’s conception of the conflict and of her husband.

This telling benefits from Smith's sense of the story's cadence, shown in deliberate pauses for reflection and transition that are inundated with live onstage percussion. Lighting designer Thomas Schraeder gamely draws out the pace by creating languid multi-stage scene shifts whose measured nature roots the play in its surroundings, lending a real sense of traveling across town — or time — rather than merely crossing a stage. Harry Wetzel’s scenic design and its interior borders contribute to the effect, but its greatest feature is the positioning of the advocates in distant positions of judgment, making the hearing room a very public place of castigation. It’s a choice that becomes the foundation of some of the most explosively revealing work of the production, the incredible arc of Amadei as Gideon. His casual, unconcerned racism and stoic defense of his job duties are stomach turning, but it’s the recollection of his encounter with James that reveals the menacing calm, the true terrifying monstrosity that makes Travis and Amadei's shared reflection as unbearable as it is riveting.

From micro to macro, Burying the Bones covers massive ground in its two hours (including an intermission). The production is least successful as an exploration of one marriage dynamic and the personal secrets that won’t stay buried, but only by comparison. As a microcosm of the post-apartheid search for release and agreed-upon normalcy, its conveyance of the pain that we can only hope makes way for freedom is an overwhelming success.

Burying the Bones is no longer playing.
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