Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Coming Home
Wilma Theater

Nyambi Nyambi, Patrice Johnson and
Antonio J Dandridge

At first, something doesn't seem quite right. Coming Home has a painfully slow start; throughout the first act, simplistic characters do little more than smile widely and reminisce. The main character makes up silly songs to sing to her five-year-old son; at times, it almost seems like a children's show. Could this really the latest play by Athol Fugard, the master dramatist who has spent fifty years illuminating the South African condition for the rest of the world?

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 world—because 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 improved—the 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 gone—a 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 or in person at the box office.

Coming Home
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Blanka Zizka
Stage Manager... Patreshettarlini Adams
Set and Costume Designer... Anne Patterson
Lighting Designer... Thom Weaver
Composer and Musician... Mogauwane Mahloele
Sound Designer... Andrea Sotzing

Veronica... Patrice Johnson
Alfred Witbooi... Nyambi Nyambi
Oupa... Lou Ferguson
Mannetjie (age 5)... Elijah Felder
Mannetjie (age 9)...Antonio J. Dandridge

Photo: Jim Roese

-- Tim Dunleavy

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