Having developed a productive and fruitful bond in recent years with the McCarter Theater and its artistic director, Emily Mann, South African playwright Athol Fugard’s back again for the world preem of his new play, “Sorrows and Rejoicings,” a romantic memory play heightened by the playwright’s poetic storytelling gifts.
Central character is poet and political activist Dawid Olivier (John Glover). Expelled for his political beliefs during apartheid, he returned to his beloved village to die 17 years after his exile. Following his funeral, the two women who loved him meet to remember and heal old wounds.
Marta (L. Scott Caldwell) was Dawid’s black housekeeper, a “loyal and devoted servant” who had a forbidden relationship with the poet. Dawid’s wife, Allison (Blair Brown), a white Englishwoman and university teacher, was a city girl who always felt out of place in the dusty streets of South Africa, “with nothing else to do but swat flies.”
The play is structured as a series of soliloquies of compelling intensity, much like operatic arias. They are marked by Fugard’s customary eloquence.
The author has staged the play with a steely command, drawing bold and telling performances. Dawid is described as having “a fire inside him,” and Glover ignites that fire with burning intensity. Brown is direct and touching as the poet’s wife, and Caldwell invests the role of Dawid’s mistress with a noble sense of dignity, patience and longing.
Marcy Harriell is a quiet storm as the mulatto daughter, who for most of the play looms in the shadows. But her sullen silence cannot conceal her fury, and her final impassioned confessional provides the drama’s surprising conclusion.
The piece is beautifully framed in a copper-colored, sun-baked dining room designed by Fugard’s collaborator of 20 years, Susan Hilferty. A highly polished dining table becomes a metaphor, and Fugard eloquently describes the table’s journey from the “tallest of all the tall trees” to “a place where the family sits down to say grace.” Dennis Parichy subtly underscores the confessionals with his amber lighting design.
Following the Princeton run, Fugard will direct the play in Cape Town, South Africa, and a fall engagement in Manhattan is expected to follow.