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.