Athol Fugard would have something to say to motivational speakers. In response to all of those "never tell yourself it can't be done" and "if you don't dream big, you'll be doomed to fail" people, Fugard presents Coming Home, the tale of the disastrous results of someone who dreamed too big, too fast.
Coming Home begins in 2002, although its story actually begins in Fugard's 1995 play, Valley Song, to which Coming Home is the sequel. (No worries if you missed Valley Song, Fugard fills you in on everything you need to know.) Valley Song was Fugard's first post-apartheid play. It tells the tale of Veronica Jonkers, a young woman who, in the promise of the end of apartheid, leaves her grandfather's home in a small impoverished village to seek her fortune as a singer in Cape Town.
We see that Veronica, in flashback, and understand her boundless hope for her future. She would make up songs about people in her village. One song, about her friend Alfred, sums it all up very nicely. Alfred wanted a bicycle, but not a shiny new bicycle with a chirping bell; Alfred was too poor to even dream of anything beyond a used bicycle. And when Veronica sang to Alfred she chided, "Don't let your dreams be secondhand."
But that's the Veronica of flashbacks. The Veronica of Coming Home opens the door to her grandfather's one-room shack (with corrugated metal roofnicely suggested by set designer Laura Fine Hawkes), with her few possessions and her five-year-old son. She's happy to return here; there's a sense of safety to it. She mocks the person she used to be as a silly child, because she knows about the world nowand we ultimately learn that even a secondhand dream might have been aiming too high, as Veronica eventually clings to a dream which seems simple by comparison, but still so very difficult to accomplish.
When we find out what happened to Veronica in Cape Town, it's clear that Fugard sees the end of apartheid as merely a first step, not a resolution to the problems in South Africa. Because giving blacks the right to vote does not, of itself, eliminate decades of discrimination, inadequate education, insufficient medical care and crushing poverty. And the truth of the matter is, the very best job Veronica could hope to get in Cape Town was as a maid at the Holiday Inna job she lost because she got pregnant, a pregnancy she had because government-provided condoms were defective, and so forth. Veronica was doomed to fail, with the deck stacked mightily against her. And, while her dreams of singing success ultimately gave her the son she calls her miracle, they also sent her back to her village as a husk of the vivacious young woman she once was.
As the play progresses, the role of Veronica turns into one which has "For your awards consideration" written all over it, and Deidrie Henry in fantastic in it. Her transformation between the two extremes is absolutely stunning, but it's her smaller scale work in the little moments that is the real treasure. Just watch her when she learns that her grandfather's grave has been washed away in a flood, so she has no real place to mourn him; Henry has true reactions which are beautiful to watch.
Thomas Silcott, as secondhand-dreamer Alfred, is also quite good. Alfred is one of those slightly dim, simple characters with a basic goodness about him, and Silcott captures that well. Matthew Elam, as the 10-year-old version of Veronica's son, is surprisingly solid for a young actor, playing the subtext of his lines more than the text. Credit, as always, goes to director Stephen Sachs, for keeping the performances up to the Fountain's usual high standards.
Indeed, the weakest link in this production is Fugard's play. Some of the language is awkward and the dialogue just doesn't sing like some of his other work. He throws way too much into the play, tooany one of the many things that happened to Veronica in Cape Town is probably enough on which to base a play; Fugard has so much happen to her that I heard patrons, at intermission, trying to recall the precise chain of events that led to her downfall. But most troubling is that the end of the play is forcedit depends on at least one improbable event, and two characters acting against the personalities Fugard had established. Fugard also has the spirit of Veronica's grandfather appear at the end of the play, to wrap things up with a tidy metaphor which would have had more impact had Fugard simply suggested it, rather than hit us over the head with his point.
Still, Coming Home is worth seeing, if only for Henry's magnificent performance, and the reminder of how much is yet to be done for true equality in South Africa.
Coming Home runs at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles through August 20, 2009. For reservations and information, see www.FountainTheatre.com.
The Fountain Theatre -- Producing Artistic Director Deborah Lawlor; Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs; Producing Director/Dramaturg Simon Levy -- presents Coming Home by Athol Fugard. Directed by Stephen Sachs. Set Design Laura Fine Hawkes; Lighting Design Christian Epps; Costume Design Shon Le Blanc; Composer/Sound Design Peter Bayne; Properties Goar Galstyan; Dialect Coach JB Blanc; Technical Director Scott Tuomey; Master Electrician Kathi O'Donohue; Master Carpenter DJ Higgenbottom; Wardrobe Caitlin Erin O'Hare; Production Stage Manager Liz McGavock; Graphic Designer Scott Siedman; Publicist Lucy Pollak; Photographer Ed Krieger; Produced by Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor.