Athol Fugard, South Africa’s master chronicler of the political and psychological costs of apartheid, weighs in with a melancholy progress report in the ironically titled “Victory,” now in its U.S. premiere at the Fountain. Trio of superb performances and Stephen Sachs’ exquisitely nuanced staging bring the play alive on three distinct levels of appreciation.
“Victory” works first of all as a cat-and-mouse, intruder-in-the-house thriller driven by the desperate Freddie (Lovensky Jean-Baptiste).
He’s masterminded the break-in of a retired white teacher’s elegant library, precisely detailed by designer Travis Gale Lewis right down to the volumes being organized by size — though not after Freddie gets through with them.
Turning the tables on the Man, his mood swinging from furious glee to bewilderment when events outrun his planning, Freddie embodies the universal pathology of the have-not left without options. A proffered gun must bring to mind Chekhov’s dictum (about the need to fire onstage weapons), but the complexity of Jean-Baptiste’s Freddie, now feral, now pathetic, leaves open numerous possibilities for the outcome.
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The play works on a second level as the siege takes a more personal dramatic turn through Freddie’s accomplice, 16-year-old Vicky (Tinashe Kajese), who grew up in this house where her late mother served as maid. She too is a wild card, memories of past kindness battling with resentment over everything she’s lost. Hopped up on equal parts of booze and despair, Kajese balances agonizingly on a razor’s edge throughout play’s breathless 60 minutes.
Since this is Fugard, there’s got to be an element of political allegory as well — giving the play a third dimension — embodied here by author’s surrogate Lionel (Morlan Higgins). Widowed and used up, gentle bibliophile lives on autopilot as the promise of Nelson Mandela’s prison release — precisely when Vicky was born, we’re told — dribbles away in apartheid’s selfsame race and class inequities. Higgins’ every movement is infused with pain, with a sense it’s his liberal ideals wasting away as much as his frail body.
Dialect authenticity, courtesy coach JB Blanc, is matched by authentic mood of dread set by Christian Epps’ ominous lighting and a brilliant sound effects mix from David B. Marling.
One measure of Sachs’ accomplishment is the dozens of unmistakable behavioral clues only a precise helmer will see fit to manage. Notice how Vicky’s head whips around in disbelief at Freddie’s “she’s my girlfriend now,” or Higgins’ relationship to a treasured book changes in a heartbeat. Marvel in the final moments as a prop — unmentioned in stage directions or dialogue — serves to meld this little play’s suspenseful, personal and political dimensions at once. This is superior, unmissable work.