By Geary Danihy
The modern tragedy of South Africa is that it has shed apartheid only to be shackled by an AIDS epidemic of such proportions that, as noted in a recent article in The Wilson Quarterly, “at least one in six of all HIV-positive people in the world live in this country of some 48 million.” This stark fact was, so it seems, the jumping off point for Athol Fugard to pen his latest play, Coming Home, the sequel to his 1995 play, Valley Song, that recently received its world premier at Long Wharf Theatre.
Although the specter of AIDS hovers over the play, the epidemic’s impact on the nation is tangential to the play’s focus, which is on Veronica Jonkers (Roslyn Ruff), who returns to her grandfather’s home in the Karoo region of South Africa with her young son, Mannetjie, initially played by Namumba Santos and then by Mel Eichler as the action moves forward in time.
Ruff offers a touching, multi-layered portrait of a young woman filled with promise and the joy of life who has seen her hopes and dreams crushed and her health ruined by her ill-fated sojourn in Cape Town, the legislative capital of the nation. Creating a character who is destitute but not defeated, Ruff’s sharp-tongued take on Veronica allows the audience to see a woman whose goals have narrowed to finding security for her son before she succumbs to AIDS.
This security is sought in the person of Alfred Witbooi (Colman Domingo), Veronica’s childhood friend who, after her move to the big city, worked with her grandfather on his small plot of land until the old man died. Domingo all but steals the show with his poignant, humorous, life-fulfilling portrait of a man of limited intellect who has adored Veronica since childhood and who now is called upon to fill a role he is not sure he either wants or is capable of handling, that of becoming Mannetjie’s “father” by marrying the dying Veronica.
Using a sing-song voice, fluid facial expressions and extremely emotive body language, Domingo deftly draws the audience to his character and makes him the moral center of the play. Whether he is responding to Ruff’s tart, commanding presence or delicately trying to find common ground with Eichler’s standoffish and disdainful take on the older Mannetjie, Domingo displays his character’s flawed humanity for all to see and relate to.
Although often both engaging and touching, Coming Home does have its faults, chief among them Fugard’s extended use of narrative rather than dramatization to flesh out his characters. This is especially true with Veronica’s set-piece narrative near the end of the first act as she relates to Alfred her experiences in Cape Town and how she came to become HIV-positive. Although narrative is a necessary part of every play, its over-use can slow down the action to a crawl and sap a scene’s energy.
Director Gordon Edelstein, the Theatre’s artistic director, does what he can to put some tension into this scene, but there’s not much that can be done if the dialogue isn’t there. He is much more successful in his staging of Veronica’s on-going interaction with Alfred as the two remember their collective pasts and deal with present problems, including whether or not Alfred will marry Veronica.
Fugard also uses extended narrative at the play’s conclusion, when the ghost of Veronica’s grandfather, Oupa (Lou Ferguson), appears to deliver the play’s somewhat simplistic “moral,” which involves pumpkin seeds and words as metaphors for eternal renewal, turning the play in its final moments into something akin to an Aesopian fable.
The entire play is set in the interior of Oupa’s home, a stark shack created by set designer Eugene Lee that evokes the physical paucity of the characters’ lives. This is set against the harsh yet beautiful South African landscape hinted at in a brightly painted backdrop seen stage right that is framed by a windmill. The towering structure remains static until the play’s final moments when, as Oupa relates the story of one tender plant surviving a killing frost, the windmill’s blades begin to turn slowly, an effect nicely enhanced by Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting design that, throughout the play, provides nuanced visual emphasis to the characters’ emotions without being intrusive.
Given all of the social and psychological issues that lurk in the background, Coming Home succeeds best as a simple tale of dreams deferred, the ties of friendship and family that bind, and renewal in the face of the killing frost that eventually finds us all.
Coming Home plays through Sunday, Feb. 8. For tickets or more information call 787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.
This review originally appeared in The Norwalk-Citizen News.