The Captain’s Tiger

The Tiger Athol Fugard

The Tiger Athol Fugard

Donkeyman Owen Sejake

Betty Jennifer Steyn

In “The Captain’s Tiger,” the prolific South African playwright Athol Fugard returns to his youth with a sweetly autobiographical memory play. Following two decades as a dramatic chronicler of the turbulent years of apartheid’s racial injustices in his native land, Fugard reveals the process of creative writing as a young seaman. Probing into his past with illuminating insight, the playwright has crafted a reflective journey, laced with flights of fantasy, poetic imagery and a bracing touch of humor.

The voyage begins in 1952 on a tramp steamer en route to Japan from the Red Sea. Fugard the grizzled 66-year-old playwright transforms himself into the 20 -year-old “Tiger,” a nautical term for the captain’s personal steward. After flirting with short stories and poems, and haunted by a photograph of his mother as a young woman, the fledgling writer turns his energies toward creating a novel.

As the character of his mother, renamed Betty Le Roux (Jennifer Steyn), takes form on the pages of his notebook, the vision of this inspirational muse emerges like a white angel under a broad-brimmed sun-bonnet. Often resenting the dramatic liberties the author has taken with her life, Betty protests, “You just have to scribble it down, but I’m the one who has to live it!”

Fugard displays his lyrical sense of storytelling when Betty enters a hotel lounge and is enamored of the handsome piano player, who would become his father. As the lilting strains of “Ramona” embrace Betty, she longs to dance with her future husband, who is revealed to be a cripple. Steyn turns the moment into a poignantly wistful scene. She brings a teasing playfulness to her character and invests the role with an impressionable nature, a quality admittedly inherited by the author.

As the scribe struggles with his manuscript, he is befriended by Donkeyman (Owen Sejake), a big, burly, uneducated Kenyan. The brawny engine worker, who speaks Swahili and fragments of English, encourages Tiger’s literary pursuit and they build a strong earthy bond of companionship. When the writer cannot come to terms with the more sensual and intimate details of his narrative, Donkeyman escorts the virginal Tiger to a Japanese brothel to indoctrinate him into life’s sexual pleasures.

Fugard’s cargo ship is “a wanderer of the sea,” and on his exotic voyage from Japan to the South Seas, the playwright beautifully captures the slight swell of the ocean and the calm clear nights at dead man’s watch with picturesque poetic flavor. As the seafaring steward, Fugard is delightfully feisty and impish and Sajake is boldly supportive as the journeymen engaged in shipmate camaraderie.

Fugard and Hilferty have co-helmed the piece with tasteful simplicity, and the latter’s set design of a merchant ship deck and hatchway, with its coiled mooring ropes, is backed by a hazy wall of dusty books, a visual metaphor for the power of words. Another asset is the sensitive lighting design by Dennis Parichy, which deftly accents past and present.

Fugard is a weaver of dreams and a grand storyteller. “The Captain’s Tiger” is but one chapter from his youth. The play premiered in Pretoria and Johannesburg prior to its American debut in Princeton. Fugard’s slim volume “Cousins: A Memoir,” published last year, contains an affectionate remembrance of his parents and holds promises of still more autobiographical dramatic literature.

The Captain's Tiger

(DRAMA; MCCARTER THEATER; 1,075 SEATS; $ 35 TOP)

Production: PRINCETON, N.J. A McCarter Theater, in association with Mannie Manim Prods., the Civic Theater Johannesburg and the State Theater Pretoria, presentation of a play in one act by Athol Fugard. Directed by Fugard and Susan Hilferty. Set and costumes, Hilferty.

Crew: Lighting, Dennis Parichy; music, Lulu van der Walt; stage manager, James T. McDermott. McCarter artistic director, Emily Mann. Opened, reviewed May 8, 1998. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

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