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Theatre Review (LA): Coming Home by Athol Fugard at the Fountain Theatre

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Athol Fugard, the poetic chronicler of South Africa’s apartheid and the lasting effects the policy has had on the country, continues his unique relationship with Stephen Sachs and the Fountain Theatre. Though Fugard now lives in Southern California, he continues to share his stories and observations about his native country.

In Valley Song Fugard introduced us to Veronica and her grandfather Oupa. She breaks away from village life to pursue her dreams of becoming a singer in the big city. The play represented the necessary step a South African black must make to break from her past and forge a new life. The split is wrenching yet full of hope.

In his new play Coming Home, a sequel to Valley Song, we find Veronica returning home after her grandfather’s death to begin life anew with her young son Mannetjie. She soon reconnects with a friend from childhood, Alfred, who seems directionless but excited to see his friend, the only friend who ever cared for him.

Fugard takes awhile to get around to his main theme, which is the devastating affects of AIDS on South Africa. Until fairly recently the South African government persisted in first denying the existence of the disease, then insisting it could be cured using a natural approach of herbs and bananas. As a result of this antiretroviral approach, thousands died, and one in every five citizens are stricken with this awful disease.

As it turns out, Veronica now has the illness, which becomes most apparent in the second act. She needs her foolish friend Alfred to marry her so her son won't be taken away when she dies. Fugard doesn’t lecture us or resort to bathos but rather makes his point through his observations of what it all costs in human terms. The effect is lyrical, painfully beautiful, and also, at times, quite funny.

Fugard’s other theme is the necessity of passing on human stories to keep people aware of where they come from and where they are going. Veronica’s grandfather (who makes a few moving, ghostly appearances) collected pumpkin seeds to plant so they might grow into big plants. Mannetjie, Veronica’s son, keeps a collection of big words in the same container so that eventually he can write down the stories he has heard. It is almost as if Fugard is waxing poetic as to why he writes and the importance of passing stories on to each generation.

Stephen Sachs does a brilliant job of capturing just the right tone and look for telling this story. He has also assembled a remarkable cast. To denote the passage of time, two separate actors play Mannetjie: Timothy Taylor is the sweet-faced boy at five, while Matthew Elam plays the more serious intelligent Mannetjio at ten. Adolphus Ward is a kindly and moving presence as Oupa the grandfather. Thomas Silcott is terrific as Veronica's dimwitted but kind-hearted friend. Deidre Henry is magnificent as the pretty Veronica who slowly descends into despair and death. Her performance stirs the heart.

Coming Home plays at the Fountain Theatre until August 29th with a possible extension. Go see this one!

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