CAMBRIDGE -- Colombian screenwriter and actor Humberto Dorado found a powerful subject for a play in the seemingly endless violence of his country, and specifically in a horrific 2001 massacre by paramilitary forces in the village of Chengue. When Robert Woodruff, artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre, saw Dorado's play in a 2004 festival in Bogota, he was so moved by it that he decided to bring an English-language version here. So now we have ''The Keening," which puts Marissa Chibas alone onstage for nearly two uninterrupted hours to tell the story of a fictional planidera, or professional mourner, and her tragic links to that real event.
Nicolas Montero, who directed the original production (known as ''Con el Corazon Abierto," or ''With an Open Heart"), and Alejandro Luna, who designed its set and lighting, came north to adapt their work to the ART's spare Zero Arrow Theatre. They've created a somber gray space, harshly illuminated by a line of fluorescent tubes and flanked by desolate patches of volcanic-looking rocks, in which to spin out the nameless woman's tale of grief and rage.
Against that stark backdrop, Chibas's nearly ritual floor mopping, ceremonial scattering of rose petals, nostalgic dancing, and periodic collapses into pure anguish should have a raw emotional power, and sometimes they do. But there is something curiously distant about the experience: We hear the planidera's story, we see her suffering, we know we are to be moved by it, and yet somehow it does not tighten its grip around our hearts.
Without having seen the original, it's difficult to know whether this distance is partly a problem of translation -- not just from Spanish to English, but from a theater where everyone in the audience shared a sorrowful history to one where it feels more remote, and from a Colombian actress, Vicky Hernandez, who had worked with Montero and Dorado on developing the story to the competent but inevitably less engaged Chibas. Any one of these shifts would tend to weaken the play's original force and passion, but the combination of all of them is perhaps too much to overcome.
Certainly ''The Keening" presents a formidable workout for any actress, and Sunday night Chibas's voice seemed somewhat strained from the start. But she also did not take over the stage as a solo performer must; she sometimes seemed more to be following a complex series of instructions than creating a vividly lived experience. Perhaps, as she settles more deeply into the role, she will connect with it more fully and become a powerful presence, rather than a skillful presenter.
It would also help if the script rose more often to the level of the grotesque poetry that has the planidera describing the ''dark red masks -- almost black" that she then realizes are the mutilated faces of the massacre's victims. Mostly, unfortunately, the language stays flatter than that. Much as we may want to get inside the planidera's painful world, and much as we may value the ART's efforts to bring it to us, for too much of the evening we remain too far away.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.