You might think that a 77-year-old playwright who has written a highly-acclaimed, prize-winning play nearly every year for 53 years might be running out of steam by now. Well, not so with South African/English/American playwright Athol Fugard, who has just written what, in my view, is the best work of his career. And that’s saying a lot for the man who wrote such blockbuster dramas as “The Blood Knot,” “Boesman and Lena,” “Sizwe Bansi is Dead,” “Master Harold and the Boys” and 2004’s “Exits and Entrances.”
“Coming Home” is Fugard’s latest play, which is having its West Coast premiere at the theater that he calls his “artistic home in the United States,” The Fountain Theatre in West Hollywood. Once again, Stephen Sachs, co-artistic director of the Fountain, has taken on the pleasant task of directing Fugard’s play with one of the best teams of performers to be seen on any stage in a very long time.
The woman who is “Coming Home” is Deidrie Henry, who was so electrifying in the Pulitzer Prize-contending play “Yellowman” in 2002. Here again she is mesmerizing as Fugard’s heroine, Veronica Jonkers, who is returning to her childhood home after a futile decade in Capetown trying to succeed as a singer.
Veronica brings with her a son (played by Timothy Taylor as a 5-year-old and Matthew Elam at 10) and striking memories of the years she spent in this dilapidated shanty with her loving grandfather, Oupa Jonkers (Adolphus Ward), and her childhood friend, Alfred Witbooi (Thomas Silcott), an exuberant man-child who is still brimming over with kindness and concern. In two extraordinary performances, the men, Ward and Silcott, match the phenomenal Deidrie Henry beat for beat. It’s a brilliant tour de force a trois right before your eyes.
Oupa, who has died and left his home to Veronica, turns up periodically as a wise old ghost, delivering, in one instance, a symphony in words about the life-affirming joy of planting a seed and watching it grow. Veronica, who has obviously learned much from his perennial optimism, is able to maintain a brave face even when she tells the sympathetic Alfred the sad tales of the life she had lived in Capetown before she came home.
“Coming Home” is a familiarly predictable tale, set in post-apartheid South Africa, when the newly freed peoples are beginning to realize that all their extravagant hopes and dreams for a bright new future are not going to be immediately forthcoming. But among this distinctive family, the dignity, the kindness, the love, and even the hope still remains.
“Coming Home” is set in a one-room tin-roofed shack designed by Laura Fine Hawkes that manages to be both wretched and homey at the same time. It’s a wonderful setting for this warm and beautiful play.
I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved this play and its performers, and how emphatically I recommend it to you. If I were prone to rate these things, I would give it a firm five papayas! Or, as they call them in South Africa, five “paw-paws.”
“Coming Home” will continue at the Fountain Theatre at 5060 Fountain Ave., in Los Angeles, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 through August 29th. Call (323) 663-1525 for reservations.
<i>Hail to the chief’s assorted teammates</i>
Farragut North is the section of Washington, D.C. where old pols go when they die. It’s the heart of the business district, close by the K Street lobbyists, where influence is bought and sold.
In Beau Willimon’s new play, “Farragut North,” currently having its west coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, the prospect of winding up there hangs over the principals like the ghost of Christmas’ Future. Chris Pine, a 25-year-old wunderkind (think George Stephanopoulos) is Stephen Bellamy, press secretary for a governor who would be president. Bellamy’s boss, campaign manager Paul Zara (Chris Noth) is a confident and successful veteran of such campaigns, dipped in the scruples of a James Carville. Together, they have helped lift their candidate to a rising lead in the polls.
The candidate, who never appears, and his plans for the country, which are never expressed, are beside the point. The focus is on the machinations of the people behind the scenes. Bellamy and Zara are aided by a bright young gopher/speechwriter named Ben (Dan Bittner), an ambitious newspaper reporter, Ida Horowicz (Mia Barron), and an earnest young intern, Molly (Olivia Thirlby). Representing the opposition is Tom Duffy (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) who enters the picture to try to seduce the power-hungry Bellamy to the Other Side.
The convoluted plot is interesting and the actors are engaging, but somehow the whole thing just doesn’t ring true. The characters, I believe, are too savvy to fall so helplessly into the holes that other people have dug for them. Further, I am not convinced that experienced political players could be so easily maneuvered and that their actions would be taken so seriously — especially in today’s political climate.
Noth, handsome as ever, is a little too jolly and laid back to be totally convincing as the campaign manager. And in the opening scene, surrounded by his cohort in a bar, he and the others banter at such a frantic speed that much of their dialogue is lost.
Pine, on the other hand, is excellent throughout, even though he appears far too gullible for someone as shrewd and calculating as he is apparently supposed to be. Both women carry out their minor, though critical, roles in fine fashion, as does Isiah Whitlock, Jr.
Director Doug Hughes leads his cast through the intricacies of the plot with only a little lag-time and the appropriate sturm und drang. David Korins’ set design is simple and effective, as is Paul Gallo’s lighting, but the background video collages supplied by Joshua White and Bec Stupak, while providing a burst of political spectacle, were highly unintelligible.
The stage production will continue at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood, Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. through July 26th. Call (310) 208-5454 for reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.