nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 19, 2010
Conviction tells an interesting story about the nature of faith and love. It's based on the life of Andres Gonzalez, who in 1486 was tried by the Inquisition in Spain for heresy. (The actual case is detailed here; be aware that this account will give away many of the surprises in Conviction.) Gonzalez was a Catholic priest, but he was also a converso, meaning a Jew who was forced to convert to Christianity by the Inquisition. The religious beliefs of his ancestors and those forced on him come into conflict in this tale; the question becomes which faith is the one that belongs to him, that he must embrace. I found everything in this play completely convincing, but the true answer to that question is never provided, perhaps because it's one that only lies within the heart of he who must decide it.
The story of Gonzalez is framed, in Conviction, within a more contemporary one, this about an Israeli professor who, in the 1960s, while Franco still rules in Spain (and before Spain initiated formal diplomatic relations with Israel), has come to research the Inquisition and is caught stealing the Gonzalez file. The Israeli's reason for committing this crime—which could potentially land him in Spanish prison for a very long time—proves to be very personal and, again, in its way, convincing; but as with the inner story in this play, I never really felt that I understood exactly why the professor chose to do such a dangerous thing.
The parallels between the modern story and the medieval are underlined by having the same actor (Ami Dayan, who is also co-adaptor of this play with Mark J. Williams) portray both Gonzalez and the Israeli. Kevin Hart takes the roles of both the director of the Spanish National Archives (in the modern story) and Gonzalez's confessor. A third role, that of a young Jewish woman whose family defied the Inquisition, is played by Catharine Pilafas. The play itself is by the Israeli author Oren Neeman; this English adaptation was commissioned by the Denver Center Theatre Company.
All three actors deliver compelling performances, and the nature of the story—it's essentially a suspense thriller, a sort of religious whodunit—ensures that it is always gripping. Jeremy Cole's staging is simple and fast-paced, and interest never flags. But as I've said, the deepest philosophical and theological questions that are raised by this narrative are merely touched upon. I left Conviction wondering what choice I would make in Gonzalez's position: is there a religious principle that I would ultimately be willing to die for? In this time of fundamentalists of every stripe (some of whom are would-be suicide bombers), this is obviously a very pertinent question. Yet somehow in the context of this play it finally felt remote, at least to this 21st century American.