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Sorrows and Rejoicings

Is there anything left in my life that would be cause for rejoicing? I am drought stricken
— Dawid, the passionate poet/activist, who having exiled himself from South Africa to regain his voice, finds himself unable to write, to give his wife a child. . .  to do anything but drink to drive away the sense that time is a hungry rat gnawing away at him.
Dawid (John Glover), the central character of Sorrows and Rejoicings, is loved by two women, Marta (Charlayne Woodard), and Allison (Judith Light). The picture at left shows him and one of those women during the play's one happy moment -- a flashback to the day when he, drunk with his burgeoning power as a poet and activist, has his first joyous sexual encounter with the young housekeeper who has come to adore him. Except for that brief scene, there's more sorrow than rejoicing in Athol Fugard's latest play which just opened at Second Stage.

Though much younger than Fugard, Dawid clearly echoes the author's own sense of being "relentlessly gnawed by time" and remaining a relevant voice in post-apartheid South Africa. Like Fugard, he is a white writer deeply committed to black freedom. The other three characters also have little cause for rejoicing

For Allison, clouds darkened her marriage from the start of a honeymoon in the Karoo (the semi-desert farm region in the center of South Africa) that Dawid loved and she feared and hated. For Marta, loving Dawid brought the heartbreak of serving tea to the woman he brought home as his future wife and the disdain and rage of her daughter Rebecca (Marcy Harriell). As for Rebecca she is all the new South Africans who have no use for any white people, even those who championed the end of arpatheid. To her Dawid's being banned for fighting for a more inclusive South Africa means nothing in the light of his abandonment and the years of not being allowed to acknowledge him as her father.

The structure used to lay bare all these sorrows and regrets is a meeting of Marta and Allison after his funeral. The setting is Dawid's spacious South African home, still tended by Marta, to which he returned after an unfruitful seventeen-year exile to die of leukemia. It's a wake of sorts, but without guests and food. Though Allison and Dawid were separated for some time, she has nevertheless returned for his burial and her wordless first scene makes it clear that she has never stopped loving him.

The women's remembrances of their relationship with Dawid are mostly monologues, interrupted by flashbacks in which Dawid takes an active part in the story. It's like an occasionally animated still life -- over-animated since Fugard, as director, has encouraged John Glover to play the poet-activist turned impotent alcoholic with an excess of histrionic fervor. For the women, the remembrances bring some solace through mutual understanding and acceptance; but as Dawid's wasted life can't be resurrected and changed, Rebecca remains a furious presence, unwilling to even walk through the doorway until the play's last half hour.

Mr. Fugard's penchant for obvious metaphors, present even in his earlier and best plays, is still with us: Allison and Rebecca are frequently seen standing at opposite ends of the room, arms folded to underscore the don't touch gulf between white and black South Africans; and in case you missed the large table made of a fine old native wood as symbolizing a humiliating past which young Rebecca would like to throw away, it is frequently touched and talked about. But despite the lack of metaphoric subtlety and the dramatic stasis of the monologues on one hand and the overwrought elements in the flashbacks on the other, Sorrows and Rejoicings commands our interest and attention for its exploration of the continuing links between the personal and political in modern South Africa.

There's also cause for rejoicing in Charlayne Woodard's performance as Marta. She's a simple woman but smart, able to rejoice in the good parts of the past without bitterness. Judith Light's Allison is not quite as nuanced, a bit too cool and distant for the impassioned exit speech in which she pleads with Rebecca to put aside the hate for her father, telling her (and, by extension, all Afrikaners) "For your soul's sake, rejoice for him!" Marcy Harriell, who won much praise at CurtainUp in more upbeat and vocal roles (In H.M. S. Pinafore and The Complete Female Stage Beauty) deserves some sort of special award for remaining on scene but speechless for two-thirds of the play. When she is finally released from her silence she is full of fire. It is in his brief scene with her that John Glover is at his best.

Praise is also due to the look of the production. Susan Hilferty's set is spare but elegant (she also ably fulfills the role of costume designer), the tall marbelized walls extending the sense of smooth surfaces covering a scratchy past and present. Dennis Parichy's lighting effectively keeps us aware of the silent actors without distracting us from the speaker.

While Sorrows and Rejoicings is about South Africa and South Africans, its most trenchant theme is the struggle of all exiles to retain their roots away from the land of their birth. The "sorrow" of the title is inspired by Ovid's "Tristia" which deals with the sorrow of losing one’s native tongue. To sum up the univeral pain of this struggle, this comment by writer and Egyptian exile Edward Said: "Its [exile] essential sadness can never be summoned. . . a condition of terminal loss."

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Written and Directed by Athol Fugard
Cast: Judith Light, Charlayne Woodward, John Glover and Marcy Harriel
Set and Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Dennis Parichy
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, without intermission
Second Stage, 307 W. 43rd St. (just West of 43rd St.) 212/246-4422
1/15/02-2/24/02; opening 2/04/02
Tues, Thurs and Friday at 8pm; Wed. 2 and 7pm; Sat at 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. -- $35-$50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 3 press preview.
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