Sorrows and Rejoicings

In his eloquent, moving and piercingly sad new play, Athol Fugard explores how the cruelties of apartheid continued to claim victims even after the racist laws enshrining the policy were dismantled.

Allison - Judith Light
Marta - Charlayne Woodard
Rebecca - Marcy Harriell
Dawid - John Glover

In his eloquent, moving and piercingly sad new play, Athol Fugard explores how the cruelties of apartheid continued to claim victims even after the racist laws enshrining the policy were dismantled. “Sorrows and Rejoicings” takes place at the dawn of the new millennium, several years after the end of apartheid, but there is little sense of rebirth to be found in this play, which has been sensitively staged by the playwright and features an absolutely superb cast.

In fact, the contemporary South Africa glimpsed here is peopled mostly by ghosts. The literal ghost onstage is Dawid Olivier (John Glover), a onetime poet whose South African funeral is the occasion of a thorny reckoning between his genteel white widow, Allison (Judith Light), and his family’s longtime “colored” servant Marta (Charlayne Woodard). Marta was not just the family’s loyal maid, but also Dawid’s onetime lover and the mother of his only child, the 18-year-old Rebecca (Marcy Harriell), who stands framed in the skeleton of a doorway for much of the play, unwilling to enter the room that Marta always cherished as the permanent home of Dawid’s absent soul.

Fugard is working with some of his regular collaborators here, set and costume designer Susan Hilferty and lighting designer Dennis Parichy. Their artistry adds immeasurably to the evening’s effectiveness. Hilferty’s handsome set evokes with a satisfying simplicity the vast expanses of the Karoo region of South Africa that is home to many of Fugard’s works. But its spareness and its dimensions also suggest the loneliness of exile that is at the heart of the play’s story. Parichy’s graceful lighting fluidly demarcates the characters’ journeys from the present to the past and back again.

The present is this room, so beloved to Marta, who cannot stop polishing the massive wooden table that is its heart, and so foreign to Allison, who only visited the family homestead a few times before leaving the country with Dawid some 16 years before for exile in London. Dawid hadn’t returned since — even after it became politically viable for critics of apartheid — but came home to die nevertheless, a broken man.

Wary but respectful of each other’s grief, Marta and Allison exchange recollections of Dawid, each supplying the other woman with perspectives on the man the other could never see. Fugard’s writing is occasionally a little too structurally neat, carefully parceling out details of Dawid’s history in a sometimes rote manner calculated for audience comfort rather than dramatic authenticity. And the play has maybe one revelatory climax too many. But these are small flaws in writing that is as richly knotted with sympathy and insight as the stinkwood table that sits so commandingly in the center of the set.

A look at the faces of the two women in Dawid’s life tells much about their history with him: Marta’s is open as a sunflower, only rarely in shadow. In a typically extraordinary performance by Woodard (oxymoron intended), Marta blazes across the stage when she’s in thrall to her memories of Dawid’s talent, Dawid’s attentions to her and her lifelong love for him. She can’t help bursting with pride and dizzy joy in her recollections, but it’s when she’s stilled by the wound at the heart of her naturally sunny nature — his abandonment — that the power of Woodard’s performance really strikes home. It’s as if a room that was blazing with light a minute before is suddenly cast into darkness.

Allison, by contrast, wears a mask of respectability that hides a heart that began grieving the loss of her husband well before his death. She lived for years with the man Marta only glimpsed at the last: the wraith whose soul had been shattered by his exile from his beloved homeland. A few mannered touches are the only qualms to be registered about Light’s skillful, vividly emotional delineation of Allison’s attempt to come to terms with her husband’s complexities, which stand personified before her in the persons of Marta and Rebecca.

Dawid left South Africa when the government began censoring his poetry for its political content, but in London the poet’s voice in him was silenced. Cut off from his country, he was cut off from the language and culture that nourished his writing. Glover’s alternately ebullient and scaldingly sad performance shows us both the playful man who intoxicated the young Marta and the pathetic figure he later became.

The play is rich in moments of tense anguish, as the ghosts of the past come to stake their painful claims on the present, but possibly none is more harrowing than the recollected encounter between Dawid and his daughter Rebecca, who had come to seek revenge for a life’s worth of shame. Harriell, whose performance is wordless until late in the play, quickly establishes Rebecca as an emotional pivot of the play: She has her father’s fierce sense of justice, and as a light-skinned South African knows all too well what it is to live in a state of permanent exile. But her desire for revenge is stopped by the spectacle of his self-disgusted anguish and his desperate need to atone for the pain he caused.

There is no tearful rapprochement, however, only a strained encounter that opens a new wound without healing the first. “Say goodbye to this house and its ghosts,” Rebecca says to her mother toward the end of the play, but in a telling gesture Allison will soon be handing the keys of the house to Rebecca herself.

There’s really no getting away from ghosts, after all. As the play illustrates, you carry them with you. The most that can be hoped for is that a reckoning with the past can burn away some of the bitterness of the present — a recipe that, typically for this invaluable playwright, has both personal and political dimensions.

Sorrows and Rejoicings

Second Stage Theater; 299 seats; $50 top

Production: A Second Stage Theater presentation of a play in one act written and directed by Athol Fugard.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Dennis Parichy; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; production stage manager, Alison Cote; stage manager, Amy Patricia Stern. Opened Feb. 4, 2002, reviewed Jan. 31. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast: Allison - Judith Light
Marta - Charlayne Woodard
Rebecca - Marcy Harriell
Dawid - John Glover

More Legit

  • Hugh Jackman'To Kill a Mockingbird' Broadway

    'To Kill a Mockingbird's' Starry Opening: Oprah, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and More

    The Shubert Theatre in New York City last was filled on Thursday night with Oscar winners, media titans, and, of course, Broadway legends who came out for the opening of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The starry guest list included Oprah Winfrey, Barry Diller, “Les Misérables” co-stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Gayle King, [...]

  • Pat Gelbart Obit Dead

    Actress Pat Gelbart, Wife of 'MASH' Creator, Dies at 94

    Pat Gelbart, widow of late “MASH” creator Larry Gelbart, died surrounded by family at her home in Westwood, Calif. on Dec. 11. She was 94. Gelbart was born in Minneapolis, Minn. in 1928 as Marriam Patricia Murphy. When she met her husband, Gelbart was an actress, known for the 1947 musical “Good News,” in which [...]

  • To Kill a Mockingbird review

    Broadway Review: 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

    Against all odds, writer Aaron Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher have succeeded in crafting a stage-worthy adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The ever-likable Daniels, whose casting was genius, gives a strong and searching performance as Atticus Finch, the small-town Southern lawyer who epitomizes the ideal human qualities of goodness, [...]

  • Isabelle HuppertIsabelle Huppert Life Achievement Award,

    Isabelle Huppert, Chris Noth to Appear on Stage in 'The Mother'

    Isabelle Huppert will appear opposite Chris Noth in the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “The Mother.” It marks the U.S. premiere of the show. “The Mother” was written by French playwright Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton. Huppert, an icon of European film, was Oscar-nominated for “Elle” and appears in the upcoming Focus Features [...]

  • Could Anyone Follow ‘Springsteen on Broadway’?

    Could Anyone Follow 'Springsteen on Broadway'? Here Are Five Things They'd Need (Guest Column)

    After 235-odd shows, with grosses in excess of $100 million, a Special Tony Award and a hotly anticipated Netflix special debuting Sunday, “Springsteen on Broadway” is an unprecedented Broadway blockbuster. As with any success in entertainment, the rush to replicate The Boss’ one-man show reportedly is under way, with a consortium led by Live Nation, CAA [...]

  • Clueless review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Clueless' the Musical

    How does a musical stage adaptation of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film comedy of oblivious privileged teens, “Clueless,” play in the era of female empowerment and millennial engagement? True, the principal skills of lead teen Cher Horowitz are the superficial ones of mall shopping and makeovers. But her sweet spirit and independence, plus some added P.C. relevance, [...]

  • Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary,

    Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary, 'Hugo Cabret' Musical

    Producers Tim Headington and Theresa Steele Page have unveiled Ley Line Entertainment with a Brian Wilson documentary and a “Hugo Cabret” musical in the works. Ley Line said it’s a content development, production, and financing company with projects spanning film, television, stage, and music. Headington financed and produced “The Young Victoria,” “Argo,” “Hugo,” and “World [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content