KPBS AIRDATE: September 9, 1992
In the plays of Athol Fugard, the universal is in the particulars. The voice of South African angst, Fugard invariably constructs one-set, small-cast shows about tiny problems that are emblematic of a whole country’s woes. Writing and living in his fatherland, he has focused most of his attention on the horrors of apartheid.
But his newest play, now having its American premiere on the Lyceum Stage, co-produced by the La Jolla Playhouse and Atlanta ‘s Alliance Theatre Company, ends in a note of hope. That’s a change for Fugard, reflecting the changing climate of his country, and the waning, however sluggish, of its long-term racist policies. His heart, as always, is in the right place. He finally feels a modicum of optimism for the future.
Two weathered and weary countrymen, one black, one white, meet on the back-lot of a traveling carney at the edge of town in the Karoo Desert . Both have committed “number six… the Big One,” violating the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Both are angry, tormented. The white man has killed more than 27 black people, during the bloody South African Border War. The black man has killed just one deserving white man, and he served 15 years for it.
Both are reluctant survivors, barely surviving. One man is emotional, shell-shocked, contrite; the other is taciturn, wooden, unrepentant. After what seems like hours of talking around their guilt and anguish, they reach a reconciliation that represents the whole nation’s potential for healing. And the overpowering notion of the oppressor asking for forgiveness is brilliantly timely in this year of Columbus.
But there’s just too much gristle till we get to the meat. The play lasts only about an hour and a half, without an intermission, but it’s a long ninety minutes. There is too much verbiage and too little action. Perhaps Fugard the playwright might have benefited from an outside eye, a stand-in for Fugard the director.
His direction is as measured and minimalist as usual, but unlike last year’s “A Lesson from Aloes,” there’s not enough being said, in too many words, to sustain that level of stillness.
What is exciting is Susan Hilferty’s dynamic set, much more elaborate than usual in a Fugard production. A great, skeletal roller coaster framework, backed by a huge spinning ferris wheel. When the amusement park comes alive, we get the garish lights and the tawdry gaiety. And we get Larry Golden’s marvelous mimed trip through the midway as he tries to play at Playland, to forget his past life and begin a new one, it being 1989’s New Year’s Eve.
Ben Halley Jr., as the night watchman, stays behind, “watching and waiting,” as he puts it. Even when he talks, there is a sense of suspended animation. His words are snapped together like Pop-its, one by one. But behind his mechanical exterior, there is a lurking, ominous energy.
Golden, as the white veteran, seems on the verge of a breakdown. He writhes in the dirt, he clings desperately to the old, abandoned roller coaster car downstage. Two riveting, powerful performances. But these men need more to do, and less to say.
The ending may be moving, but it’s the only thing that is, in a torpid, wordy play. Fugard has created two interesting, contrapuntal characters. He has a lot to say in this post-apartheid period. But he needs to say it more succinctly and more dramatically.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.