And then act two begins, and suddenly there is conflict, dramatic tension, a moving plot and a compelling subject. Finally, all seems right in the worldbecause it seems like the world we recognize from Fugard's other plays. Coming Home ends up being a worthy addition to the Fugard canon; it just takes a long time proving itself.
In Coming Home, a sequel to Fugard's 1995 play Valley Song, Veronica returns to her native village after years spent pursuing a singing career in the metropolis of Capetown. Now she and her son have returned to the house of her late Oupa (grandfather) so that she can restart her life. Her childhood friend Alfred shows up to welcome her, and when he asks her why it took so long to come back, she makes only vague allusions to the ghosts of her past that have haunted her. The only hint of anything wrong in Veronica's life comes when she hugs her son and says "Mommy is so sorry"but what is she sorry for? We get a suggestion of Oupa's displeasure with her during a flashback scene, but that's the only hint of conflict in the repetitive and routine first act, half of which could be cut without harming the play in any way.
After the intermission, things get interesting. It's three years later, and things have clearly improvedthe house looks a bit spiffier (Anne Patterson's tasteful set design walks a fine line between realistic and abstract). But Veronica is ill, and she reveals to Alfred the painful secret that she's been hiding. The story of how Veronica contracted AIDS is a gripping one, and it's free of lecturing, moralizing and melodrama. We get to see the effect of the disease on Veronica and her loved ones, while Fugard gets to make a larger point about how the South African government has virtually ignored a disease that has stricken at least a fifth of the population. Fugard's plays of the seventies and eighties were never preachy in their brave opposition to apartheid, and Coming Home takes a similarly subtle approach to condemn the current government's inaction. Since she can't get the medicine she needs, Veronica comes up with a plan to make sure that her son is provided for even when she is gonea plan that provides some unexpected comedy along with the heartbreak. The play ends with a lovely metaphor that lets Veronica's son make a symbolic connection to his legacy while moving forward with optimism.
Director Blanka Zizka's graceful staging makes the characters' journey a vivid one. Patrice Johnson hits all the right notes as Veronica, moving from joy to righteous anger with plenty of conviction, but remaining grounded and compassionate all the while. Veronica's friend Alfred is slow witted, but in Nyambi Nyambi's superb performance, never cartoonish. He may seem stupid, but in a plot twist near the end of the play, he reveals himself to be much more substantial than he seemed. Lou Ferguson is warm yet imposing as Oupa, and the two children who play the son at different ages (Elijah Felder and Antonio J. Dandridge) are also impressive.
Coming Home winds up being a rich and moving testament to self-reliance and the human spirit. It's just a shame that Athol Fugard wastes so much time getting around to making his point.
Coming Home runs through November 15, 2009 at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street. Ticket prices start at $36 (with discounts and rush tickets available) and may be purchased by calling the Wilma Box Office at 215-546-7824, online at www.wilmathearter.org or in person at the box office.