SALT LAKE CITY — In the spring of 1994, the Hutu majority government perpetrated a mass genocide against the Tutsi people of Rwanda, leaving 500,000 to 1,000,000 dead. Vivienne Franzmann’s stark, focused play The Witness shines a spotlight on a group of people affected by this holocaust: an award-winning photographer, the daughter he rescued from the scene and raised as his own, and the orphaned brother left behind. An examination of white liberal guilt and the ethics of journalistic information, this story is as painful as it is honest.
As the British photographer Joseph, Andrew Maizner led the cast as a solid patriarchal figure. The role calls for layers of moral ambiguity, deplorable and sometimes despicable behavior, and an edge of perfidy, all while needing to remain sympathetic. It is a difficult task for the best of actors, but so endearing was Maizner’s portrayal that I could almost forgive his character’s less attractive motivations and more unconscionable sins. In a scene in which he bids farewell to his daughter, who has chosen to return to Rwanda, his pain mingled with defeat was quite touching.
The brother (Simon), played by Calbert Beck, and the sister (Alex), played by Michaela Johansen, had the beginnings of undeniable talent. Both roles demanded a great deal of angst—Simon because he knows the truth behind Joseph’s veneer of altruism, and Alex because she is learning far more about her origins than her father ever divulged. There were moments where I felt that both actors could have pushed even further, made their moments more real, and extracted the pain written in the words. In a scene in which Alex berates her father for keeping her brother’s existence a secret from her, I found myself psychically urging Johansen to go for it. It’s a scene that could be heartbreaking, but it didn’t quite get there. Similarly, I found that every once in a while Beck’s choice of facial expressions seemed more a mere showing of grief and rage than the real thing. I am certainly not asserting that all actors should employ the “method” style of acting, but it was more that I could see it in him and I felt that he just wasn’t letting go. These were both actors that sparked my interest, and, given the opportunity, I would love to see them perform again or even work with them.
The one pitfall of the play was, unfortunately, a glaring one for me. As a dialect coach, I have a more specific ear than most, so I try to ignore little mistakes here and there when it comes to accents in theater. I am particularly more lenient with community theater, because I know that most audience members won’t notice the blunders. But so distracted was I by the poor execution of the estuary English accents performed by Maizner and Johansen, that I found myself missing chunks of the dialogue and story because of the anxiety level these accents induced. I have no particular expertise in African dialects, so I cannot speak for Mr. Beck’s accent, but the other two were giving me pause. I am unsure as to whether the opportunity for improvement would fall on dialect coach Margo Andrews or with the actors. However, there seemed to be a basic disharmony at play between what the actors could have learned from Andrews and what was happening onstage.
Despite this, I felt it was unfortunate that this play may not have gotten the attention it deserved. It is unfortunate largely because of the message it so ardently portrayed, and also because of the level of professionalism of which the People Productions company seems capable. The direction by Richard Scharine had scenes flowing from one into the next, helped along by a deft stage crew: Alexa Rideout and Matias Eyzaguirre. Though I saw this show on the closing performance, I will certainly be revisiting productions mounted by this company in the future.