Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

The Shadow of the Hummingbird
Long Wharf Theatre

Also see Fred's review of The Other Place

Athol Fugard
Athol Fugard the actor takes to the stage for the first time in more than 15 years in The Shadow of the Hummingbird, by playwright Athol Fugard (with an introductory scene by Paula Fourie). This is a beautiful 60-minute reverie as lyrical as a lovely bird in flight. Long Wharf Theatre, in New Haven, presents Fugard along with either Aidan or Dermot McMillan (identical twins who alternate) in this world premiere through April 27th.

Fugard, the masterful author of Blood Knot, "Master Harold" ... and the Boys, The Road to Mecca, My Children! My Africa! and many more profoundly telling plays, now opens a window upon his relationship with a 10-year-old grandson—and of the precise, poignant shadow that a hummingbird casts upon a wall. Eugene Lee, designing, has created a room (books, table, chairs ...) located in Southern California. Director Gordon Edelstein, working closely and precisely with Fugard, brings the touching script to life at Long Wharf's Stage II.

The Shadow of the Hummingbird is based upon Fugard's time spent in San Diego, specifically his writing space there, and treasured moments with his own grandson. Fourie, now Athol Fugard's companion, provides an important opening sector by combining her own dialogue with excerpts from the writer's old journals. Hence, we hear words written in 1997/98, 1974, 1988, 2012 and so forth. When Oupa (Fugard's character) sees a shadow and spreads apart his arms, he then welcomes Boba (one of the McMillan twins) and this is the link to the short play Fugard has written.

Absolutely comfortable with his role, Fugard, never hurries; his pacing is special and perfect. True: a man in his eighties is not likely to jump about a room. Still, one senses that Fugard makes conscious, deliberate choices. During the opening, he slowly shuffles his feet, yet one can almost feel his mind considering and working. He moves into the room, clad by costumer Susan Hilferty in pajamas, a ski hat, and vest. He cannot find his eyeglasses, at least for a minute, and the first portion begins. While Fugard is fluent and maximizes each journal reading, the beginning section is neither so fluid nor absorbing as is the larger body of text. Later, the playwright references Plato and William Blake as he explores, really, the virtue of life.

Fugard, the actor, is completely at home on stage, even after his long leave of absence from the so-called boards. He combines relaxation with attention to find Oupa's center. With exquisite phrasing and control, he sculpts this elderly man into one who is distinctive. His is a poised readiness. It is his very presence which becomes indelible. When Boba ambles into the room, the youngster and the old man literally spar with one another. The former is not all that physically healthy while the boy glows.

Fugard's early work was politically potent as he contested South Africa's apartheid policy, and the situations he created were intense if not desperate. Those fervent plays live on. The current presentation is gently intriguing. Oupa has forever been intellectually curious—a man who reads books and intuits the world of birds. With all of his experiences, Oupa craves innocence and wants Boba, whom he loves, to enjoy his days ..

The device utilized at the top of the performance is effective but, perhaps, there are too many journal readings. Editing might be helpful; utilizing the most revealing, precious sections serves well.

John Gromada's sound design and Michael Chybowski's lighting ignite the theatergoer's senses and one watches, in appreciation, as Fugard visualizes a hummingbird ... and that is not all. Oupa's warm, tender and lively connection with Boba is thoroughly charming.

The Shadow of the Hummingbird continues on Stage II at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through April 27, 2014. For tickets, call (203) 787-4282 or visit

Photo: T Charles Erickson

- Fred Sokol