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Stage Review: Fugard's 'Sorrows' is static, yet moving

Friday, January 24, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

"Sorrows and Rejoicings" certainly has flaws, but I may not be able to do them justice, because there were times I could barely see through my tears.



WHERE: City Theatre, Bingham and 13th, South Side.

WHEN: Through Feb. 16, Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 5:30 and 9 p.m., Sun. 2 and 7 p.m. (some variation).

TICKETS: $25-$35; 412-431-CITY.


This is a great writer, Athol Fugard, now 70, tackling a painful legacy with all his characteristic moral earnestness, deeply stirred. The plight of Dawid, an exiled poet who has betrayed his lyric genius, is harrowing -- but the confrontations among the writer, the two women in his life and an angry daughter play on the deeper bass strings of family love, loss and guilt. Simultaneously, the play offers a transparent parable of the new South Africa trying to find its way out of a long history of racism -- a tale with obvious resonance for Americans.

That's plenty to feed thought and feeling, but it's the family story that started my tears, especially when the daughter turns on her mother with pent-up feeling. And there are other moments that stir dark themes: The poignant love of home, the passing moment missed and gone forever, the failure of dreams.

As to those flaws: "Ibsen lives," commented a theatrical friend, who did not mean it as a compliment. I see his point: Fugard has a moral certainty and obviousness, a programmatic doggedness, that are reminiscent of the conventional view of Ibsen as moral reformer.

"Sorrows and Rejoicings" is certainly dramatically static. The result can be sculptural rather than kinetic, less like a movie, say, than a series of paintings.

My most irreverent thought was of Oliver Goldsmith, objecting to the great Dr. Johnson that "if you were to make little fishes talk, they would talk like whales." Fugard isn't ever that inflated, but you wouldn't call him playful. Still, as counterevidence there is the sequence where Dawid makes poetry from the phone book. This lyricism lets welcome air into a tableau-like drama of painful revelation and tentative acceptance.

Enough qualms. I was moved, and I forgive the play the obviousness with which it proceeds. While one man might call transparency simplistic, I'll call it clarity.

As the play begins, the poet, Dawid Olivier, an Afrikaner, has just been buried in his native South African village beside the beloved grandparents who raised him. After the funeral, his wife, Allison -- South African of English descent -- returns to the family house to unravel the past with Marta, the Olivier family's black housekeeper. Dawid's lover before he married Allison, Marta has continued to care for the house in the 17 years since he and Allison were driven into London exile by the government.

Dawid left thinking he could continue the fight against apartheid from abroad, but he found his talent dry up in exile -- a lyric talent, not political, it needed its roots in the Karoo. At the very end, under sentence of death by leukemia, he returned to die in post-apartheid South Africa. And what of Rebecca, his daughter by Marta, who never knew her father?

They have lots to sort out in that frank post-funeral mood that digs up past accounts and spreads them out to air. Dawid appears in crucial scenes from memory (which is what they are, rather than flashbacks).

Tony Ferrieri presents a jewel-like set, an island of polished wood floor and furniture, approached through wooden arches, like a magical island in time. Behind loom mountains, and over them lighting designer Thom Weaver moves a variable moon, marking time passing. The spot-on costumes are by Cletus Anderson.

This precision is important, because "Sorrows and Rejoicings" depends on many small things done well and unobtrusively. Chief among these is the sensitive direction of Timothy Douglas, who helps make every moment as simple and true as possible.

Helena Ruoti plays the crisp and brittle Allison, an initially unsympathetic character who gradually reveals her own constrained emotional life. Her feeling care is matched by her antagonist, Marta, played delicately by Kelly Taffe. Her small, early look as Allison says she wants to have "words" speaks volumes.

For most of the play the daughter, Rebecca, played by CMU senior Rebecca Utt (an odd coincidence of names), must watch, providing a silent touchstone for our own changing sympathies. When she speaks, it brings welcome drama.

Conan McCarty has the hardest job as the unhappy, tormented Dawid, who has the largest emotional range with each scene discrete. In spite of McCarty's obvious skill, I don't think Dawid ever feels fully real, and since I felt the same about the excellent John Glover's performance in the New York production, I guess this betrays some lack in the writing. The problem may be that, although Dawid is Fugard's alter ego, his failures are not Fugard's and so lack felt depth.

That New York production never moved me as does this. And I haven't even gotten into the history and its American parallels.

Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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