Review: Piety Laced With Poison in the Uganda of ‘The Rolling Stone’

The newly appointed preacher, rehearsing what is likely to be the most important sermon he’ll ever deliver, says that God has shown him that “where there is light, there is also darkness.” Evil, he continues, can exist in the midst of goodness.

No one who sees Chris Urch’s “The Rolling Stone,” which opened on Monday at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, is likely to disagree with this assessment. The strength of this heartfelt but imperfect portrait of a witch hunt in modern Africa lies in its calm elicitation of cold shadows from a sunny world, among people who have seemed so very likable.

For example, in that sermon, the voice of the clean-cut, tentative young pastor, named Joe (James Udom), rises wrathfully as he warms to his subject: “I ask the Lord what shall be done and the Lord tells me for us to look to our children. Look to our boys and if we see a limp wrist, we crush it.” That is among the milder advice he offers.

The specific catalyst for this invective is the publication that gives the play its title. No, not the rock ’n’ roll magazine, but a newspaper that had a brief but impactful existence in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010. Its mission was to root out homosexuality, and to that end, The Rolling Stone began publishing photographs — and names and addresses — of people who were suspected of being gay.

This act of journalistic outing (which reportedly led to at least one murder) is what Joe is responding to in the sermon he’s preparing, at the urging of his jolly and pious mentor, the churchwoman known as Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor, in robust form). It has suddenly become a time in which moral allegiances must be declared boldly, particularly if scandal is threatening to taint your own family.

“The Rolling Stone,” which opened to acclaim in London two years ago, is a direct descendant of “The Crucible” (1953), Arthur Miller’s era-defining presentation of the Salem witch trials as an allegory for the McCarthy hearings. (A question posed in “Stone” — “Is the accuser always sacred now?” — is a riff on a line from “The Crucible.”)

The climate of civic hysteria is less palpable than in Miller’s classic, its canvas much smaller and its tension level, for the most part, considerably lower. And Saheem Ali, its New York director, doesn’t sustain the urgency that would disguise the script’s inconsistencies. But it is persuasively acted throughout and confirms Mr. Urch’s reputation as a young British dramatist of promise who is still finding his voice.

He cannily charms and disarms the audience before leading it into more suspenseful terrain. The production begins — after a rousingly sung prologue of a hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee” — with a moonlit idyll. (Arnulfo Maldonado’s abstract jungle of a single set, as lighted by Japhy Weideman, alternately suggests unbounded horizons and inescapable captivity. In the opening scene, two young men are in a boat on a lake, beneath a canopy of stars. Sam (the charismatic Robert Gilbert) is a doctor, newly arrived from Ireland. (His mother is Ugandan.) His companion, Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood, a touching mixture of swagger and insecurity), is an 18-year-old student. As they banter, quip and spar, their chemistry is palpable. Even amid the first-date awkwardness, they appear to be such a natural fit.

It’s only later that you realize the ominousness of the script’s first words, spoken playfully by Sam: “Do you get the feeling that someone is watching us?”

It was the day of the funeral of Dembe’s father, and the young man speaks of the relief he feels that the dead man will “never know me for who I am.” Still, it seems unlikely that the surviving members of Dembe’s family would accept him as he truly is.

His older brother, after all, is Joe, the preacher. And while Dembe is close to his smart, fearless sister, Wummie (the excellent Latoya Edwards), there are aspects of his life that he knows would be dangerous to share with her.

His extended family includes his neighbors, the cheerfully officious Mama and her daughter, Naome (Adenike Thomas), who is hopefully regarded within this little clan as a future wife for Dembe. For mysterious reasons, exposed in a connect-the-dots revelation in the second act, Naome has stopped speaking altogether.

The plot shifts between scenes portraying Dembe’s evolving relationships with his family and with Sam. These are worlds that Dembe hopes to keep separate, and of course they are destined to collide.

It is perhaps fitting that the necessarily closeted Dembe should be a man of contradictions. But as written (and through no fault of Mr. Blankson-Wood’s), his emotional reversals seem unconvincingly abrupt, and evolutions of feeling that should develop over time are crammed into short stretches of dialogue.

Mr. Urch manages to pack in a wealth of social observation — about engrained sexism as well as homophobia — by indirection. But he also relies too much on bald declarations to define his characters, who are sometimes required to speak in the explosive shorthand of melodrama: “Loving you has ruined me.” And: “You and I both know you only wanted me as pastor to reclaim your respectability.”

The six performers never betray the suspicion that they might be incarnating less than fully formed characters, though. And they all do beautifully by the play’s best-written scenes, which find the anxiety of something unspoken in ostensibly comfortable exchanges.

Traditional Protestant hymns, sung by the cast, punctuate the production. (Justin Ellington did the original music and sound.) At first, they seem so comforting, so all-embracing, so warmly familiar. The singers’ voices remain on-key and harmonious throughout. By the end, though, you’ll hear a detectable sting in the sweetness.

The Rolling Stone

Tickets Through Aug. 25 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

Ben Brantley has been the co-chief theater critic since 1996, filing reviews regularly from London as well as New York. Before joining The Times in 1993, he was a staff writer for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

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