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Hello and Goodbye

by Sam Thielman

Family quarrels are bitter things. They don't go by any rules. They're not like aches or wounds; they're more like splits in the skin that won't heal because there's not enough material.
---F. Scott Fitzgerald

Johnnie Smit sits staring with a look of bovine ennui emphasized by the fact that he has only tied one of his scruffy brown leather shoes. Apathy transfixes him for a moment or two as he remains motionless in his squalid apartment, surrounded by a couch with a ratty blanket, a stove, and a small wooden table and chairs; in short, the trappings of a life barely lived. Johnnie (Chris Carroll) eventually ties his other shoe, stands up, and begins to wander restlessly around his apartment, carrying on schizoid conversations with "himselves" until the whirlwind arrival of Hester, his hellion of a sister (Karen Novack), and the end of his careful little world.

Didactic Theater Company's production of Athol Fugard's Hello and Goodbye softly cauterizes the wounded lives of its characters over two hours of revelation and recrimination. The play takes place in real time and the characters have plenty of baggage to unload (quite literally, in fact; much of the second act is spent unpacking the boxes that house the life of the Smits patriarch). What makes this play special is Fugard's affection for these people. Even as Johnnie and Hester reveal themselves to be sanctimonious and depraved, respectively, Fugard saves them from real venality by exposing their history along with their humanity. Everyone in the Smit family has been used up and dried out, much like the dreary 60's South African setting itself.

"Nothing ever reached us new," muses Hester as she studies the hand-me downs and leftovers in her father's boxes. "Even the days felt like someone had lived them out before they got to us." Karen Novack brings a grounding depth and earnestness to Hester, and one needed much throughout the talky piece. Novack's portrayal of the angry prostitute gives the impression of someone with a self-destructive streak that used to be attractive, even sexy, and has now finally taken its toll on the bearer.

Chris Carroll's Johnnie is a blanker slate, but appropriately so. At first glance, he seems merely to be a funny face with nothing behind his eyes, but as Fugard reveals the depths of Johnnie's dependence on his father, Carroll's portrayal takes on greater texture until the sad, horrifying denouement. Crippled and alone in the house at the end of the play, Carroll's matter-of-fact Johnnie is all the more disturbing for his pragmatism. Here is someone who frankly admits that he will do anything to maintain the illusion that he is needed and wanted. It's hard to look at him as he hurts himself, but its even harder to realize that with Johnnie, Fugard holds the funhouse mirror up to nature and shows us our needy selves.

The Didactic's production is sparse, but understandably so. This is a play about decay, after all, and the ugly mid-century décor is perfectly realized by Sean Doyle's set and Nina Mahi Zardonzny's costume design. The production flags somewhat during the longer monologues, especially those delivered by Carroll, whose awkward demeanor works better as a foil for Novack's brashness. Still, Fugard's morbid spectacle of a dying family unit is a rare and challenging one, and the undertaking is ultimately worth the effort.

Hello and Goodbye
by Athol Fugard
Directed by: Jewel S. Orem
with Chris Carroll and Karen Novack
Costume Designer: Nina Mahi Zadronzny
Set/Art/Lighting Design: Sean Doyle
Sound Design: Dan Schrader
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
A production of Didactic Theatre Company
The Warehouse Theatre, 1021 7th St.
Telephone: 202.783.3933
WED - SUN @7:30, SAT & SUN @2; $20, $15 with student ID
Opening 03/25/05, closing 04/10/05
Reviewed by Sam Thielman based on 03/25/05 performance
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