Sorrows and Rejoicings
Also see Sharon's recent review of Pentecost
Sorrows and Rejoicings, Athol Fugard's play having its West Coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, is about thresholds. It takes place in post-apartheid South Africa, on the threshold of finding its identity as a unified nation; at the end of 1999, on the threshold of a new millenium. And upstage center, for the bulk of the play, a young woman (aged eighteen, on the threshold of adulthood), stands in a doorway, on the threshold of a room.
But the room that she cannot bring herself to enter, and has not entered for eight years, does not hold her future, but her past. It is in this room that her mother, a black servant named Marta, first met her father, Dawid, a white poet. It was in this room that Marta first met Allison, the white Englishwoman who would become Dawid's wife. It was in this room that Dawid told Marta he was leaving her, her two-year-old daughter, and South Africa itself for a life in exile, because the South African government had banned his work from being published or read. And it was in this room that Marta labored for sixteen years to preserve it so it would be ready if Dawid ever returned. And now, a few weeks after Dawid's final return to South Africa, Rebecca stands in the doorway of this room, watching Marta and Allison finally talk things out, having been reunited for Dawid's funeral.
The play works, and it does, because of the beauty and power of Fugard's language. The language, however, is not well served by the portrayals of Marta and Allison. Allison is played by Judith Light with an upper crust English accent that is heavy on snootiness. Having just returned from Dawid's funeral, she is wearing a long-sleeved black jacket over her black dress, apparently preferring to suffer in the South African heat than show a break in propriety. Because of this, her eventual emotional outbursts are not entirely credible. A woman this concerned with image would not allow herself to break down, certainly not in front of her husband's mistress. And Allison's exit line, a very touching speech (disappointingly disclosed in the program notes) is much too generous for the cold woman we have seen for the course of the play. Cynthia Martells, as Marta, errs in the opposite direction, putting too much emotion into every line she reads. Marta overreacts to the little things, so that when she is called upon to respond to big things, she has nowhere left to go. She often speaks rapidly, and her Afrikaans accent is sometimes difficult to comprehend at speed.
The other two performances, however, are magical. John Glover plays Dawid as he is conjured in memories by Marta and Allison. But in the scenes in which he appears, they do not interact verbally with him; Dawid speaks to them, sometimes with great intensity, but since he is only a memory, they do not respond. The benefit of this, however, is that we hear Fugard's words as an uninterrupted stream of consciousness from Dawid. Glover's monologues in the play are convincingly delivered. When we see the young Dawid, overflowing with joy, eager about the future, and passionate about his art, it is easy to see what attracted both Marta and Allison. And when we see him just before his death, broken by the separation from his homeland and personal misfortune, the loss of the man he should have been is tragic. And then there is Brienin Nequa Bryant, who, as eighteen-year-old Rebecca, stands silently in the doorway for two-thirds of the play, only observing the proceedings. But when Rebecca's explosive anger is finally triggered, Bryant is phenomenal, flitting between childish petulance and adult pain. Rebecca, the mixed-race child who survived apartheid, has every reason to turn her back on the past and everything associated with it. Whether there is anything for her in this room is the key question of the play, and Bryant's struggle for that answer is honest and moving.
Sorrows and Rejoicings is a political play about the legacy of apartheid and the future of South Africa. But it is also a very intimate play, about two women who loved the same man, and a third who never had the chance. The personal interactions between Dawid's two lovers are, unfortunately, not very effective. But they serve their purpose as a framework for a touching character study of the artist in exile, and as a catalyst for the fine theatre that is Rebecca's consideration of her place in the world.
Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County, Mark Taper Forum, Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Robert Egan, Producing Director; presents Sorrows and Rejoicings, Written and Directed by Athol Fugard. Set and Costumes Designed by Susan Hilferty; Lighting Design by Dennis Parichy; Dialect Consultant Stephen Gabis; Casting by Amy Lieberman, CSA, Elissa Myers, CSA, and Paul Fouquest, CSA. Production Stage Managers Alison Cote, James T. McDermott; Stage Manager David S. Franklin.
Sorrows and Rejoicings plays at the Mark Taper Forum through June 30, 2002. For tickets and information, go to www.taperahmanson.com