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A CurtainUp San Francisco Review
This is certainly a soothing maxim for the constantly uprooted, but for many of us, home has a singular definition—and a specific destination. As a dramatic subject, it's no surprise that home is catnip for playwrights, who can endlessly spin its complicated continuum of joy and despair into the full, elaborate kaleidoscope of the human experience.
In his heartrending new play Coming Home, Athol Fugard also dabbles in the drama of the domestic; this time, with the story of a young mother who returns to her native South African village with a small son and a big secret. With sensitive, fine-tuned direction from Gordon Edelstein, who guides the action along at a deliberate, meaningful pace, this production is filled with actors who don't so much embrace their characters as bear-hug them, wringing out performances that are just as moving as they are memorable.
At the fulcrum is Veronica Jonkers, who left the village with big-city dreams of singing stardom, but she returns from Cape Town, years later, with a clutch of secrets and a sheaf of sad stories to tell. But as she uses the key still tied around her neck to step back into her grandfather's tiny, tin-roofed house, her vivacity overflows into the somber space, and she quickly works to cheer up her pensive 5-year-old, Mannetjie, with animated tales of how fantastic life was for her in this place and will be for them. Although Oupa—who appears later as a salty yet benevolent ghost—has already passed on, his memory still clings to the walls like the peeling, faded paint.
But soon enough, they hear the greeting of a real voice from their neighbor (and Veronica's childhood friend) Alfred Witbooi, and this reunion gives way to one of the most joyous, freewheeling moments of any theatrical production I've seen. With pure primal abandon, Veronica and Alfred circle and scamper around each other, letting out piercing cries and whoops that finally culminate into a smothering embrace. It's a visceral, tactile connection that wraps the audience in its ferocity and love. If this is coming home, we'd all be the better for it.
As it turns out, Alfred, who farmed with Oupa, also has a key to the house tied around his neck, and he also has questions for Veronica: Where has she been, and why is she back? In return, she placates him with a song she wrote for him, but refuses to go into details; instead, she asks him to help find her a cleaning job and get her son into school.
Years on, Mannetjie is at the top of his class, Alfred is a constant fixture, and the house has blossomed into a vibrantly textured world. But by then, Veronica can no longer hide her secret. It's not giving too much away to say that Fugard's writing often addresses characters who battle AIDS, and in this rural, repressive society, Veronica must take dramatic measures to ensure that she—and, most imperatively, her son—will always have a place to come home to.
Script-wise, there aren't many surprises in Coming Home; in fact, certain elements of the plot are downright predictable. Instead, it's the characters, especially Veronica and Alfred, and the actors who play them, who give the story its life. Roslyn Ruff's Veronica is a study in the tricky dance of self-presentation as self-preservation; at the beginning, she fills the room with her husky voice and buoyant energy, but it all rings a bit false, as it turns out, because she's "performing" and working hard to put on a show. Ruff artfully shows us the sparkly remains of Veronica's ebullient personality, but eventually she takes us to a deeper, graver, and more truthful place as the character digs into her fate.
Later, the play shifts gears to focus on Alfred, and Thomas Silcott deftly gives the childlike character—who is smart, but not altogether so smart—a sense of innocence that never feels cloying or condescending. Rounding out the cast are Lou Ferguson, who brings gravitas to the earthy yet otherworldly Oupa, and two excellent young actors, Kohle T. Bolton and Jaden Malik Wiggins, who play Mannetjie at different ages.
As a backdrop to these fine performances, the Berkeley Rep's intimate space has been infused with the sights and sounds of South Africa, from John Gromada's infectious, pulsating original music to Eugene Lee's rough-hewn set design. The warm, rich hues that explode across Veronica's walls do as much to tell her story as any monologue.
Coming Home's title suspends the action in its present tense, as if to suggest that we will always be in the process of getting there. Home is something we all seek, whether we cross borders or simply cross the street, but whether you define it as where the heart is or where the furniture is, it will always be the place where the stories are told—and made.
Editor's Note: Fugart's play is likely to continue finding a home on stages and has already done so in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.