Ghosts fill Athol Fugard’s “Coming Home,” a haunting yet clear-eyed play of lost dreams, receiving its world preem at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater. There’s the ghost of a loving grandfather, reminding the leading character of her roots when she returns to her rural home after failing to carve a better life in Cape Town. But other spirits, not in the script, hover over the production, too. There’s the ghost of the “new” South Africa set in stark contrast to its harsh, heartbreaking reality today. And then there’s the spirit of a playwright whose works served as a moral beacon prior to Apartheid’s fall in the 1990s.
At 76, Fugard once again raises that authoritative voice through the power of plain-speaking storytelling. The political and social themes may be buried beneath the modest tale of return and redemption, but make no doubt about it, they are burning at the molten core of his latest play.
To tell a tale of South Africa today, Fugard revisits a leading character from his 1996 work “Valley Song,” a play filled with hope as his native country ended its dark era. But more than a decade later, that optimism has been overwhelmed by the country’s profound poverty, unemployment and devastation by AIDS.
In “Coming Home,” Veronica (Roslyn Ruff) returns to her village with her young son Mannetjie (played at two ages by Namumba Santos and Mel Eichler), defeated but determined to secure a safe haven, at least for her child.
Her grandfather Oupa (Lou Ferguson) has died during her time in Cape Town and childhood friend Alfred (Colman Domingo) has looked over the family’s humble shack of a home and tended its fragile patch of earth, beautifully rendered in a set by Eugene Lee that brims with verisimilitude.
Veronica returns hardened and determined to work out a survival plan that involves Alfred, a simple soul who lives with his mother when we first meet him. He is happy in his poor life, living off the land, with only the thought of a red bicycle to fill his dreams. When asked by Veronica to help her in ways he never conceived, the character — and play — comes into its own with unexpected turns and vitality.
But the work has some second-act problems. Though it might speak to these characters’ human flaws, a significant plot point late in the play is troubling in understanding Alfred’s relationship with Veronica. Also, after two hours of simple eloquence in Fugard’s writing, the play ends with heavy-handed symbolism and a long-winded speech that lessens rather than builds on the emotions already evoked with the most delicate of touches.
That touch is echoed by helmer Gordon Edelstein, who gently guides his five-actor cast through honest, clear and complex perfs.
Ruff gives a stunning turn of considerable range and power, from the depths of despair, to musical joy, to fierce maternal strength and single-mindedness. (Her musical talents also show that Veronica’s youthful dreams of being a singer were no wide-eyed conceit.)
Also giving fine support are Santos and Eicher as her sons at different ages, and Ferguson as the ghost of the patriarch. Domingo (“Passing Strange”) is riveting as a poor man called to action, painfully struggling with his own inadequacy, anger and guilt.
“I don’t have the words,” says an embarrassed, illiterate Alfred to Victoria’s studious son. But in Alfred’s humanity and simple, heartfelt storytelling, much like Fugard has done, he creates a lasting impression and an influence that continue to be felt well beyond the stage.