Ami Dayan and Catharine Pilafas in Conviction
(© Eran Tari)
Ami Dayan and Catharine Pilafas in Conviction
(© Eran Tari)
If you're not up on your medieval Spanish history, you might want to arrive early enough at Conviction, now at 59E59 Theaters, to crib from the program notes. But don't worry if you don't; facts and figures fade beside the elemental force of this foredoomed love story, which is played out with palpable passion.

The play is presented within the framework of a research mission to Madrid's Archivo Histórico Nacional in 1962. It's then and there that Israeli professor Chaim Tal (co-author Ami Dayan) has been apprehended trying to smuggle out a file containing the transcribed interrogation of a 15th-century priest, Andrés González.

Tal himself is being interrogated -- in an intentionally over-the-top, Snidely Whiplash fashion -- by the repository's director (Kevin Hart), who doesn't hesitate to suggest the forces at his disposal under Franco's regime. He could hand Tal over either to the police or to the Guardia Civil; the difference, he jokes grimly, is "like the gap between your wife and your mother-in-law."

In the seeming blink of an eye -- director Jeremy Cole's stark black cave of a set lends itself easily to time travel -- the two opponents are enacting the narrative set forth in the ancient document. Dayan now portrays Andrés, and Hart portrays his mentor and confessor Juan de Salamanca. As Andrés spins his tale, Juan -- for reasons that will later become clear -- tries to cut him short with an all-purpose absolution.Then, a third figure materializes: Isabel (the lovely Catharine Pilafas), a secretly practicing Jew whom Andrés saves from an arson-minded mob led by a lecherous neighbor. The two enter into a love affair that has far-reaching consequences.

Everyone involved in this production -- including lighting designer Jacob M. Welch, who bathes the tormented clerics in an El Greco glow -- deserves the highest praise and encouragement. While the hideousness of the Spanish Inquisition may have since been overshadowed by the Holocaust, at heart it's the same story. And it is one that needs constant retelling.