First-grade teachers deal with all kinds of scary stuff: pants-wetting, tantrums, parents. Helping a first-grader from halfway across the world—one who has suffered horrors her classmates can’t imagine—is the even-scarier scenario that Scottish playwright Douglas Maxwell depicts in his new piece, The Promise. The solo drama, performed by Joanna Tope, starts out edifying—but, after tackling alcoholism, racism, and genital mutilation, its lessons get confused.
Maggie is a seasoned teacher with a drinking habit and a penchant for off-puttingly lewd remarks. Summoned from retirement to substitute-teach in a London school, she meets Rosie, a mute, six-year-old Somalian immigrant. Representatives of the local Somalian community have scheduled Rosie for a public exorcism after recess (anyone who won’t talk must be harboring devils). Uncannily drawn to the young stranger, Maggie intervenes in the degrading ritual—only to learn that her assumptions about Rosie might be the most degrading thing of all.
If The Promise had stopped there, it might have been a thoughtful meditation on cultural relativism (Tope’s energetic performance helps). But Maxwell crams in every possible trauma, dwelling on Maggie’s guilt-soaked past and her booze-soaked present; Rosie ends up less like a character and more like a queasy symbol of abuse. Teetering between overly-PC and inadvertently offensive, the play, like Maggie, follows good intentions to murky results.