Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
First, the good news. South African playwright Athol Fugard has the marvelous ability to bring his characters to life—particularly the blacks of his native country. He reaches into their hearts and minds, sending the word out to his receptive audiences.
And now, as his newest play, “Coming Home,” enjoys its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre, audiences meet those very characters. The current production is sensitively directed by Long Wharf’s artistic director Gordon Edelstein. It also has an authentic feeling—perhaps because Edelstein and set designer Eugene Lee traveled to Fugard’s home town to research the piece.
But Fugard tends to be wordy, repetitious. And, much as one appreciates his insights into the human condition, the dialogue becomes tedious—very much as it does in real life when a good friend goes on and on with his problems. Nor is it easy to absorb lines delivered with the South African lilt.
The story itself is highly dramatic—or potentially so. It deals with the widespread epidemic of AIDS now attacking the black population. These victims, still poverty-stricken despite the end of Apartheid, do not have easy access to the necessary, expensive drugs.
In Fugard’s tale, a feisty young woman, Veronica Jonkers, once had dreams of a singing career in Cape Town. But life in the city took its toll, and she returns with her small son to her native village—and to the farmhouse bequeathed by her “Oupa” (grandfather). There she meets up with a childhood friend, who has kept the property intact for her. Also appearing, in flashbacks, is Oupa himself, who extols the virtues of planting and nurturing pumpkin seeds. The seeds serve as a metaphor for Veronica’s son, the bright little Mannetjie (who will, one day, we suspect, become a great man—certainly an educated man).
But the first act is given over endlessly to recreating the friendship, comforting the child, and redecorating the bleak little house (a fine set, courtesy of Eugene Lee). And to reclling the past. There is so much expository monologue (in both acts) that the play often grinds to a halt. We are not giving away the denouement to say that Veronica has AIDS, and, in fact, both she and the play die a slow death in Act II.
Performances, however, are another matter. Roslyn Ruff, as the brave, strong Veronica, gives a performance that sends chills up one’s spine, controlling events right up to the end. Colman Domingo, as Alfred, is also remarkable—changing from an awkward child/man to a responsible adult, deepening his performance moment by moment. Lou Ferguson is solid as Oupa, and both young actors (Nanumba Santos as the younger Mannetjie and Mel Eichler as the older) are endearing. Even if they all tend to rattle on at length, they are to be cherished.
In all, “Coming Home” is a mixed blessing.
-- Irene Backalenick
Jan. 23, 2009