Joanna Tope in The Promise
(© Niall Walker)
Joanna Tope in The Promise
(© Niall Walker)
A combination of exquisite writing by playwright Douglas Maxwell and a fierce performance by Joanna Tope make The Promise, now at 59E59 Theatres, a powerful piece of work.

More importantly, when so many contemporary plays tend to trumpet one idea (if we're lucky), here is a play -- directed with vision and verve by Johnny McKnight -- that creates a rich crosscurrent of competing themes that intertwine into a complex and deeply satisfying theatrical experience.

We meet Maggie Brodie (Tope), a statuesque, mature woman with 40 years of teaching experience behind her. Today, however, Maggie is working as a substitute teacher. When the play begins it seems as if The Promise might be a small, female version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, but then the play turns this way and that, becoming a battleground between a teacher out to protect a six-year-old student from humiliation and abuse, before taking another stunning twist.

Tope not only plays Maggie, but she brilliantly provides the voices and attitudes of everyone she encounters that fateful day, including more than one ghost from her past. It is simply a tour de force.

Among the play's many enticing surprises is its portrayal of an older woman who is still very much a sexual creature. Maggie struts and speaks of her past lovers easily and without any self-consciousness. In fact, almost everything that Maggie says is said with style thanks to the playwright's colorful prose. He allows Maggie to paint pictures with her words without ever seeming pretentious or writerly.

Maggie's past is very much tied up in her present as memories of her unforgiving father and unhappy sister come back to torment her. Eventually, what feel like disparate elements in this far-ranging story come together with a whoosh of recognition, and the play keeps its final promise to the audience: to enrich, challenge, and entertain.