By: Athol Fugard
Directed by: Stephen Sachs
With: Deidrie Henry, Thomas Silcott, Adolphus Ward
June 13 - August 29, 2009
For many of us Athol Fugard has put a human face on the cost of apartheid and the rocky road South Africa has faced post reconciliation. His 1995 drama, Valley Song, was an expression of hope, shared by many South Africans, of any color, after the fall of apartheid. It concluded with Veronica, a young girl from a village, bursting with hope, leaving home, and the grandfather who raised her, to go to Cape Town to sing her way to fame and fortune.
Coming Home, is about Veronica's sad return, 10 years later, with her 5 year-old son, to her grandfather's humble cottage in the village. Fugard, explaining the creative impetus for his latest work, has said "...the truth is, as the years have passed, I have seen the dreams start to wither. It just seemed to me, at this moment in South Africa's history, I needed to follow up and take a look at that big dream that we had.". Although Fugard now resides in Southern California, the characters in Coming Home are all based upon people he has known in his hometown of Nieu Bethesda in the Karoo region of South Africa.
South Africa has the highest percentage of HIV/AIDS patients in the world, 27% of the population is afflicted. As recently as 2006 the Health Minister, backed by President Thabo Mbeki, insisted that a diet of bananas, garlic, and olive oil was as effective as the antiretroviral drugs in combating HIV. Fear of stigmatization, a miserably understaffed medical system, and poverty still keep many from treatment. Illiteracy is rampant preventing accurate information from being disseminated, in addition to all the other limitations for self-improvement it imposes. Many of the afflicted are women and children, 4 out of 10 pregnant women are HIV positive; often they are single, having been raped or left by angry, fearful husbands. Many children are orphaned every year. This is the reality against which Fugard paints his heartbreaking story, Coming Home.
Veronica (Deidre Henry), with her young son Mannetjie and her few worldly possessions in hand, and excited memories of a happy childhood in mind, returns to her grandfather's rural hut. He has recently died and she is brimming with stories for her son, prompted by the few items left in the cottage, and the wonderful grandfather who raised her. Her excitement is not contagious, her son clings to her in this foreign environment, far from the urban life they have left. Soon after their arrival Alfred (Adolphus Ward) bursts through the door. He is an awkward, well-intentioned, simple man, an old classmate of Veronica's, whose memories of her are vivid and laudatory. Although Veronica was the child with the most promise, and Alfred was the "stupid" one, she was the rare child in the village who was friendly to him. He appears to have spent the last 10 years working in the fields for her grandfather, waiting for her return. He is as full of stories of her happy days as she.
Slowly we learn that there was no success for Veronica in Cape Town. Her boyfriend, Mannetjie's father, was killed in a bar brawl and she succumbed to alcohol and "boyfriends" who "helped" her. One of these men left her with a souvenir. Her coughing in the end of the first act is a symptom of her untreated AIDS.
In Act II Mannetjie is 10 years old. As his mother did, he shines at school and he is scornful of awkward, illiterate, simple Alfred. He loves his mother and now he loves her stories. Four years have passed since the end of Act I; she barely able to move and has convinces a skeptical Alfred to marry her so that when she dies her son will not be taken by child services. Alfred has no clue as to how he could win the child over and Mannetjie has no interest in any sort of bond with him. In the end Alfred figures out how to ignore the child's rage and give him comfort and hostile Mannetjie flows from rage into need as Veronica is dying. There is clearly a piece of Fugard himself in Mannetjie. His dawning appreciation of his mother's and his grandfather's stories leads him to ask her as she is dying, how do you write a story?
Thomas Silcott gives a masterful performance as Alfred. He carries off the metamorphosis from what is almost a caricature of a simpleton to a man with the kind of wise strength that does not come from books. Deidrie Henry's Veronica is full of life, love, and the charisma that makes it believable that she might have been able to pull off her dream. Unfortunately, what interferes with the suspension of disbelief in her case is that she is robust. Perhaps this would not be a problem for someone who has no experience being around people in the terminal stages of untreated AIDS, but it may be a challenge for someone else who is more medically inclined. If this matters to you, no amount of brilliant acting can overcome the casting choice. If it dos not, her performance is very good.
Coming Home is not the deepest play you will see, but it has universal meaning beyond the exposition of the erosion of hope in post-apartheid South Africa. Adolphus Ward, grandfather Oupa Jonkers, appears twice as a ghost. His is the love of devoted parent sustained over 10 years despite receiving only 4 letters from his beloved granddaughter. It can touch the heart of anyone who feels he is losing touch with a beloved child. Ward's hands are as simply expressive as the stories he tells. Similarly Veronica's love for her son, her projection of hopes that she had as a youngster onto him, and her fears of not being able to protect him are universal; they do not need the complications of apartheid, AIDS, or anything else to be felt.
Coming Home is about disappointments small and large. It is good theater, but not great theater.