Also see Fred's review of Dying City
Director Gordon Edelstein and set designer Eugene Lee took a recent trip to Nieu-Bethesda in the Karoo section, north east of Cape Town, to fully realize the play's literal terrain. Lee's resultant set is sparse: table, chairs, bed frames have seen better days. He provides pictorial views of landscape toward the rear of the stage, and a large windmill overlooks the proceedings. When the play begins, everything is spare; one hears even a solitary, whispering sound in the house. Coming Home is a play filled with stillness and silences.
The drama (which does feature moments of comedy) is at its best when the script enables actors to move. Colman Domingo, playing Alfred, shrieks with joy when he enters the room and finds that Veronica Jonkers (Roslyn Ruff) has returned to the village she left a decade earlier. She went away to sing and prosper. Alfred and Veronica yelp at one another as they scoot about the stage. This serves as a release and it allows for one of the production's few lighter sequences.
Oupa Jonkers (Lou Ferguson), Veronika's grandfather and a man who tenderly understood how to plant seeds, has passed on. Yet, Fugard brings him back on stage a few times during the course of Coming Home. Warm, caring Oupa is able to impart wisdom to his great grandson Mannetjie (Mel Eichler). During the course of the show, we first meet the cute, younger Mannetjie (Namumba Santos) and then a somewhat older and more cognizant version (Eichler) as time moves five years forward.
The inspiring, deep-rooted, compassionate Fugard has long been a poetic, poignant voice, especially during the years of apartheid in his native country. Now, he continues to write with an enviable combination of sympathy and intelligence. Sometimes, however, the characters in the current play haven't anything to do but speak with one another. The back-and-forth dialogue is rich and revealing, but all of the telling slows the pace of the play. If one were watching electronically, fast-forward would be an option. Fugard's words are beautifully evocative but, at times, we need something more. The playwright, during the latter portions of each act, is profound and the import of his language is indelible. These are precious passages. The initial component of each act, though, begins with too lengthy an exposition.
The quality of performance, given the difficult nature of Coming Home, is special. Ruff embodies a woman who fully understands that AIDS has claimed her and she desperately seeks to ensure a life of value for her son, Mannetjie. Alfred, goofy at times but heartsick later, provides some balance. Alfred is a gentle soul who wishes for better days, yet he comprehends that he soon will be fully responsible for a young teenager.
Fugard, Edelstein, Lee and lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge fully transport theatergoers to another countrya dry, wanting land. Musical accompaniment is quite wonderful and the show affords the talented Ruff an opportunity to sing. These touches provide counterpoint within Coming Home.
Coming Home continues at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through February 8th. For ticket information, visit www.longwharf.org or call (203) 787-4282.
- Fred Sokol