South African Bard's Play Hits Close to Home

Photo: <b>Athol Fugard</b> brings the turmoils and triumphs of his native South Africa to life on the stage.
Athol Fugard brings the turmoils and triumphs of his native South Africa to life on the stage. "Coming Home," starring Roslyn Ruff, is now playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

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There aren't many "national poets" left in the world. Nowadays, our artists tend to be chorus members, rather than tribunes. There aren't many Homers left, and there are almost no Elvises. This doesn't mean the art we produce has gotten worse, it's just become more diffuse. You could even argue that it's better for a culture to be represented by a multiplicity of voices rather than a single, zeitgeist-straddling colossus.

There's at least one significant exception to this trend. For over four decades, playwright Athol Fugard has doggedly traced the social currents of his native South Africa. He's truly a national poet-his themes are sweeping, his style lyrical. His plays build on one another, transcending their individual plots to create a story with historical scope. Fugard's newest play, "Coming Home," which is currently running at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, speaks of dreams deferred then destroyed, and of the crushing disillusionment that follows a failed revolution. It's bleak stuff, but its also tremendously moving and startlingly funny.

We last saw Fugard's long-suffering heroine Veronica Jonkers in 1996's "Valley Song," when, following the fall of Apartheid, she left her tiny Karoo hometown to pursue a singing career in Johannesburg. In "Coming Home," she returns a decade later with a five-year-old son in her arms and a certain deadness in her eyes. During her time in the city, Jonkers contracted HIV, and the government cannot or will not help her procure treatment. The meat of the play deals with her struggles to come to grips with decaying health and her son's seemingly hopeless future in a demoralized nation. The material is nearly flawless, and it demands the same class of execution.

In the Rep's production, Jonkers is played by Roslyn Ruff, who harnesses her character's pathos without ever slipping into sentimentality. It's a performance totally devoid of vanity. Ruff doesn't shy away from Jonkers' bitter, hardened side, and she never succumbs to the temptations of cheap martyrdom. Thomas Silcott costars as Veronica's stalwart friend Alfred Witbooi. Witbooi is something of a buffoon and, appropriately, Silcott is a virtuoso with goofy expressions like incredulous double-takes and nervous grins. It speaks volumes about Silcott's talent that this clowning never detracts from Witbooi's bedrock nobility. As the spectre of Jonkers' grandfather Oupa, Lou Ferguson brings a sonorous melancholy to Fugard's monologues. All of the actors clearly know their way around the South African accent's throaty o's and nasal a's.

The set is very close to perfect-every object in Veronica's tumbledown shack is meaningful, from the tattered Transformers poster above the boy's bed, to the Styrofoam cups that fill Oupa's old, beloved garden. Gordon Edelstein's directorial hand is so deft as to be almost invisible. His chief genius is for pacing-creating tension and breaking it, suspending the play's infrequent moments of relief and tenderness just long enough before allowing them to drop and shatter. All these elements interact beautifully, creating moment after moment of stark beauty. When Oupa looms over his grandson in the wreckage of their garden, his enormous voice rumbling over the syllables of one of Fugard's allegorical speeches, it's difficult not to be poleaxed.

South Africa has never been a lucky land, but it is blessed to have Fugard as its bard. Hopefully, he'll continue to produce works as thoughtful and as moving as "Coming Home," which will continue to inspire productions as masterful as the Berkeley Rep's.

Contact Zachary at [email protected]

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