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24. January, 2010 Theater 1 comment

The Bay Area has been fortunate enough to have seen a bit of an Athol Fugard revival in the last couple of years, with Blood Knot at American Conservatory Theater in 2008 and My Children! My Africa! at Marin Theatre Company in ’09. This week Berkeley Repertory Theatre added a new work by the great South African playwright into the mix with the West Coast premiere of 2009′s Coming Home, a sequel to Fugard’s 1995 play Valley Song, which Berkeley Rep produced in 1998 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre featuring Anika Noni Rose. (Curiously enough without knowing that, I imagined Rose in the same role at some point while watching Coming Home.)

Roslyn Ruff and Kohle T. Bolton in Coming Home. Photo by Kevin Berne

Gordon Edelstein recreates his staging from the world premiere production a year ago at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, where he’s the artistic director. Corrine K. Livingston’s sound design makes marvelous use of African pop music between scenes, and Roslyn Ruff and Lou Ferguson reprise their roles as Veronica Jonkers and her late grandfather (or “oupa”) Abraam Jonkers, the two characters that carry over from Valley Song.

In the earlier play, teenage Veronica told her elderly tenant farmer grandfather that she had to leave to pursue her dream of becoming a singer in the big city. In Coming Home she returns to her childhood home after Oupa’s death, worn down by her hard years in Capetown and haunted by the memories that rush in at her as soon as she opens the door. With her is her young son Manfred, nicknamed Mannetjie, and she regales him with stories of life with Oupa.

Eugene Lee’s well-crafted set of a very bare one-room shack with gaps in the tin roof, a large windmill and fences outside in front of photographed rolling plains. A sudden set change in blackout to mark the passage of time is one of the  most impressive moments in the whole show.

Almost no sooner have they got there then there’s a knock at the door, and Ruff beautifully captures Veronica’s fear and protectiveness at the sound. It turns out to be her childhood friend Alfred Witboi (which usually sounds like “Alfred Big Boy” when Veronica says it), with a basin of Oupa’s things that he kept safe from looters.

Whooping with delight at seeing his friend again, Alfred at first is hard to get a handle on.  He’s childishly enthusiastic and a bit slow, always talking about the fun they used to have when they were kids, and for anyone who’s seen the movie Chuck and Buck might be disturbed by this combination. But as played by Thomas Silcott (in a role originated by the Bay Area’s Colman Domingo), Alfred can’t help but win you over with his devotion, self-awareness and gentle manner, and he really comes into his own in the second act, both as a character and as a performance.

Five-year-old Kohle T. Bolton is a trouper as Mannetjie, very attentive and serious in the opening scene, which makes him seem in a way older than Alfred.  His lines are noticeably few and spaced far apart, but you can see why Fugard would have written the part that way to be on the safe side.  He’s not part of the curtain call of the two and a half hour show, presumably because it’s past his bedtime.

Sixth grader Jaden Malik Wiggins takes over the role when time passes, and he captures that same seriousness, now tinged with an air of dutifully putting up with adults even when they’re clearly getting on his nerves.  None more so than Alfred, and their squabbling and gradual alliance becomes the focus of the second half of the play, at least for a while.

Spanning four years, the first act is almost entirely exposition. Veronica tells Mannetjie about Oupa, Alfred tells her about his and Oupa’s life while she was gone, she explains to Oupa in flashback why she has to leave. and she eventually tells Alfred about her life away. Though Veronica hides it at first, she’s gravely ill, can’t afford the medicine she needs, and worries that her son will be taken away from her or will hate her for getting sick in the first place.

Ruff has a bright and ringing voice for the songs Veronica makes up about Alfred and Oupa, and the way she shifts into take-charge mode at the end of the first act is a sight to behold, bringing it to a strong finish just when it was beginning to drag on a bit. Unfortunately that shining moment is also her last one to shine, as from that point forward she recedes into the background.

Ferguson is a warm and gentle presence as Oupa, with an especially thick, rich accent, though his ghostly visitations have an odd role in the play. When he visits Veronica it’s clearly reenacting an old memory, and it works, but he returns later in an odd and overlong agriculture lecture with the great-grandson he never met. This final scene sets up a redemptive ending that, although set up in a cursory way by a few moments earlier in the play, feels tacked on and disconnected from what’s gone before.

Maybe the play hangs together better if viewed not in isolation but as a sort of epilogue to Valley Song, which I haven’t seen. But of course it’s presented as a play unto itself, and as such it has some marvelous moments in it, but as an arc it’s mostly buildup and then peters out. Still, watching this intriguing bit of lesser Fugard is a far better thing than seeing no Fugard at all. Here’s hoping these things don’t just come in threes, and there’s more to come in future seasons somewhere around the bay.

On a side note, it did my heart good to see Berkeley Rep putting out the donation bucket for Doctors Without Borders’ efforts in Haiti.  Let’s see a little more of that as well.

Coming Home
Through February 28
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA
www.berkeleyrep.org

Seventh show of 2010, attended January 21.

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  1. 1 / 24 / 2010 1:24 am

    I thought the performances were mostly fine, for the material they had to work with. Ruff sometimes really shone in her role, and makes a great transformation throughout the course of the show, but I found her difficult to believe in much of the first scene. I really wanted more of the first kid – it seemed like every line he uttered got a well-timed chuckle, his terseness and intensity so endearing. But what kid just sits in the corner and goes to sleep like that? Strange directing choice, or maybe it’s in the text. I dunno.

    I liked Silcott’s general presence on stage – but wanted Alfred to have some kind of a slight tic or something. Nothing overt, just something small, a silent indicator that he was dealing with a mental handicap or challenge of some sort. He didn’t seem like someone who was mentally challenged at all – perhaps that was a choice the actor made, that the character was in fact quite capable but just unsure of himself and beset with criticism by everyone else in the village. But it didn’t seem to match up with the text, and I felt it would have made some of the other parts of the action more dramatic and impactful, and would have helped the whole thing come together a bit more. He felt too complex to be the simpleton Fugard wrote, which ironically took some of the complexity out of the whole thing.

    But the play itself – the text – is just kind of a slog. I nearly fell asleep twice! Again, not to the fault of the actors, who I feel were doing their best with a difficult-to-sell text. A strange choice for the Rep… maybe they were trying to do something that would balance the energy of American Idiot, to the extreme!

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