There’s a lot more sorrow than rejoicing to be found in Athol Fugard’s “Sorrows and Rejoicings,” a play that is saturated with sadness. The work itself, though, is reason to rejoice, an exquisitely crafted elegy to the artist-exile who lost his homeland, and to the homeland that lost the artist’s voice. Vivid performances at the Taper, under Fugard’s spare direction, invest the play’s pervasive melancholy with conviction and dignity. It’s not the most energetic work — its force is mostly a quiet one that can potentially lull — but it’s certainly deep, profound and beautiful.
The play takes place in a single room, although Susan Hilferty’s earth-toned, minimal set uses back walls to reflect the dusty landscape of the South African heartland. The room holds only a large, wooden table centerstage and a series of chairs artfully positioned throughout the playing space.
This is the family living-room of Dawid Olivier, a once-great poet who has just died. The three most important figures in his life gather after the funeral: Allison (Judith Light), Dawid’s English wife; Marta (Cynthia Martells), the black family servant who was Dawid’s mistress; and Rebecca (Brienin Nequa Bryant), Marta and Dawid’s daughter, who stands for most of the play in the unattached door frame upstage center, unwilling to enter the room that meant so much to the father she never knew and could never publicly acknowledge.
Most of the basic facts of the story emerge early. Dawid (played by John Glover in a series of flashbacks spurred by the women’s memories) was a respected poet and urgent opponent of apartheid when his work was banned by the government. Seeking the freedom to write, he moved with Allison to London, and he returned to this home 16 years later, only to die soon after.
Fugard has a couple of startling revelations up his sleeve, but the work proceeds primarily by layering more depth into the complex relationships as the women fill in details of Dawid’s life before and after exile. Marta, for example, always blamed Allison for Dawid’s decision to leave South Africa, while Allison always lived under the recognition that, had Dawid’s relationship with Marta not been forbidden by law, Dawid probably would have married her instead.
Rebecca, of course, sees everything very differently from the older women. Dawid left when she was only 2, and at 18 she’s a ball of resentment toward both her father, who in her mind took the easy way out, and her mother, who lived her life awaiting his return.
Nobody can conflate the personal and the political like Fugard, and he’s at the top of his game here, the first time that’s been unquestionably the case since the end of apartheid transformed the country he has written about for more than 40 years.
Rebecca is fully human as a character as well as a three-dimensional metaphor for the new South Africa, seeking to resolve its identity crisis and at risk of self-destructing with anger at all that has been irretrievably lost.
These are three magnificent, complicated female roles, and they’re delivered here with a combination of restraint and expressiveness. Allison and Marta begin mostly by not wishing to show the other weakness, and Light and Martells move smartly toward an ever more honest, ever more respectful connection. Light, best known for her soap and sitcom work, is fully comfortable onstage, impressively able to communicate with stillness and to break out believably with ironic laughter.
Martells has not had as much time to refine her role — Light and Glover did the show on the East Coast — but it barely shows. She inhabits the role ably, investing Marta with the external emotion that’s the complement to Allison’s English reserve. And when it’s time for Rebecca to emerge from that doorway, Brienin Nequa Bryant takes over the play with pent-up vigor.
Glover is an excellent fit for Dawid, a part that not too long ago Fugard almost certainly would have played himself. Glover has the passion, natural musicality and sense of the histrionic to make us believe in Dawid as a poet and a seductive force.
He capably captures the character’s infinite hope that, once uprooted from the home that was his artistic muse, turns into bottomless despair. Dawid, too, is both an individual and a representative of others: Fugard, an artist who stayed in South Africa through its darkest hours, explores the fate of artists who chose otherwise, making a plea that the new South Africa embrace them too, treating them not as traitors but as victims of the national tragedy.