Ana Reeder and Marsha Stephanie Blakein Living Room in Africa(Photo © David Korins)
Ana Reeder and Marsha Stephanie Blake
in Living Room in Africa
(Photo © David Korins)
One might expect that only the most idealistic person would leave behind a life of security and go on a philanthropic mission in a poverty-stricken country, but this is not the case with Marie and Edward (Ana Reeder and Rob Campbell), the protagonists of Bathsheba Doran's Living Room in Africa. These British expatriates have moved to an unidentified African nation to escape the fast pace of London life, to follow artistic opportunities, and also to get more bang for their bucks. (The British Pound has a lot of buying power in third-world countries). But, in the course of this powerful and poignant play, they discover how hard it is to live in a place of massive suffering without being affected by it.

Edward, an art collector, believed that building a gallery in a remote African village would help publicize his company. He sends treacly press releases to The New York Times, proclaiming that the gallery is a "gesture of hope" to AIDS-devastated Africa, but he confesses in private that news coverage of the project will help him secure additional grants he doesn't need. Marie, a writer, is struggling to finish her first novel but only manages to produce pages of long-form poetry. She had hoped to "find her rhythm" in Africa but only found that it was "slower."

These two quickly exhaust all options for entertainment in the village; they soon tire of nature walks and of having giraffes eat from their hands. Instead, they amuse themselves by drinking gin "like the colonialists of old." Marie throws her liberal guilt to the wind and employs a woman named Nsugo (Marsha Stephanie Blake) to teach her how to cook. When her brother Mark (Michael Chernus) visits, they realize that Nsugo has AIDS, and this almost ruins their dinner. Edward soon discovers that half of the workers building his gallery are also HIV-positive. He and Marie begin to have second thoughts about having moved to Africa in the first place.

All of this could seem terribly preachy in other hands, but Doran is a terrific playwright who never resorts to sermonizing. Moreover, her attention to character and detail is excellent. In one scene, Mark finds out that Edward and Marie, who are not actually married, sleep in separate beds and don't have sex. "It's not natural," he tells his sister, who responds that perhaps intimacy just isn't for her. Doran's use of celibacy as a kind of symbol for the inability of Edward and Marie to open their hearts to the misery surrounding them is very smart.

There's a fair amount of humor in the play, but it's grim. One of Edward's workers, Anthony (Makuna Steady) says: "I am a Christian. That is why I do not wear a condom." At another point, Mark reacts in horror to a suggestion that he be taken on a "poverty tour," exploding: "I wouldn't do it in London and won't do it here."

Even when the script exposes their complacency, the characters are likeable thanks to strong acting. In Reeder's performance, Marie's transformation is convincing and bracing. The brashly charming Campbell rescues Edward from seeming to be a complete boor, and Blake shows us the vivid inner life of the tight-lipped Nsugo. Steady plays Anthony as friendly but ambitious, and it's at once hilarious and disturbing to watch him ingratiate himself with his boss in pursuit of a ticket out of Africa.

David Korins's set design is dead-on; the central characters' quarters suit their personalities perfectly. (It's as if a house from the British countryside had been shipped to Africa.) The direction of Carolyn Cantor, Korins's wife, is skillful and subtle.