Oren Neeman's Conviction tells a fascinating story about the Spanish Inquisition and the 1486 persecution of Andres Gonzalez, a Catholic priest — a member of a family that had been forced to convert from Judaism — who finds his way back to his own religion through the love of a Jewish woman. His history is presented in flashback; the frame involves an Israeli scholar in Spain to research the Inquisition who is being interrogated by the director of the National Archives under suspicion of having stolen the Gonzalez file. The risk to this scholar is great because the year is 1962, and Spain under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco is almost as terrifying a place as it was in the fifteenth century.
Unfortunately, Neeman's script doesn't live up to the excitement, passion and color of its premise. The interrogation of the scholar doesn't generate much tension, and the story of Gonzalez and Isabel is told in a flood of poetic words that never communicates any real sense of who these people were. Surely the point of exploring an already dramatic historical event on stage is to reveal some new dimension, perhaps to bring out the strangeness, eccentricity, grit, surprise and reversals of actual daily life. But the affair in Conviction feels far more symbolic than real.
One of the great strengths of Ami Dayan, who directed and also plays the priest, is an extraordinary intensity, the sense that worlds of meaning lie behind the words he speaks. But here he speaks everything that can possibly be spoken, and then some more; there are almost no silences in this script. What you end up hearing is a kind of ecstatic singsong, a continuous fountain of words. Still, Dayan has some fine moments — as when he explains the cunning by which he diverted an attack on Isabel and her family by ignorant and murderous peasants and manages to bring an impish humor to this deadly serious event. And his descriptions of what Isabel is teaching him and his growing understanding of Judaism are often moving. But Isabel herself remains a kind of cipher, perpetually strong, wise and serene, and called on to do very little except pose prettily on the stage. Julie Rada is so beautiful that she can almost make this work, but in the end, beauty isn't enough. We want to see the woman laugh, yell, get jealous — in short, reveal some humanity. The couple's love-making is indicated by having Rada and Dayan circle each other and speak in lyrical cadences, and the script implies that theirs is one of the world's great and mythic couplings: Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet. But what made Shakespeare's love story matter was his language. Without it, Romeo and Juliet would have been just pimply teenagers suffering from out-of-control hormones. And by the time Shakespeare got to Antony and Cleopatra — one of his later plays, and featuring far more mature lovers — he was able to create two deeply flawed and endlessly fascinating human beings, while his poetry had become even more expressive and sublime. By contrast, Conviction is full of lines like "Your love's fire will attract a bigger flame" and "Our lips met as thirst meets a beautiful spring."
Neither Robert Mason Ham as the scholar nor Michael Shalhoub as the archive director is entirely convincing, though both shine periodically. Shalhoub's accent and immersion in the action slide and slip; Ham wears the same slightly pained expression throughout. He seems more a man concerned about having mislaid something than one in fear for his freedom or even his life.
At the end, the script poses an almost insurmountable hurdle: It's already devilishly hard for an actor to die on stage convincingly, and close to impossible to stage a believable execution by fire — unless, perhaps, you make the action distant, silent and shadowy. Once again, Neeman attempts to solve the problem with words, and it doesn't work. Ami Dayan is one of the most potent actors in the area, and also one of the most imaginative and authoritative directors. But a playwright can't approach real-life events as vivid as those depicted in Conviction without understatement, indirection and subtlety unless he's an extraordinary literary talent. Neeman's wordy melodrama upends the grounded approach that Dayan usually brings to his work.