For whatever compels world-renown playwright Athol Fugard to write, we should be grateful. At 81 years old, this South African artist continues to spin out stories that explore interpersonal relationships and challenge us to look at the world in new ways. Although his earlier works offered searing looks at apartheid in his home country, his more recent works take on broader topics, all related to the mysteries of the human condition.
His newest work, “The Shadow of the Hummingbird,” is now enjoying its world premiere at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre in an impeccable production directed by the theater’s Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein. But it will not certainly be his last. New York’s Signature Theatre, which is also one of his American artistic homes, has announced the scheduling of yet another Fugard world premiere for the 2014-2015 season.
Director Edelstein has developed a close personal and professional relationship with the playwright. Several of Fugard’s works have had their world premieres at Long Wharf under Edelstein’s direction, including “Have You Seen Us?” and “Coming Home,” or their American premiere there, most recently “The Train Driver.” Edelstein also directed a well-received production of Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca” in New York, with a remarkable cast that included Rosemary Harris, Jim Dale and Carla Gugino. But New Haven audiences have always welcomed Fugard’s work. His double bill of “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” and “The Island” had their American premiere at Long Wharf in 1973, while the Yale Repertory Theatre regularly produced Fugard’s work in the ensuing years including “The Blood Knot,” “Boesman and Lena,” “Master Harold…and the Boys,” “A Place with the Pigs,” and “The Road to Mecca.”
It’s an especially fortuitous opportunity to see “Hummingbird” in its world premiere, as it represents the first time in 15 years that Fugard has acted in one of his plays. Both in South Africa and abroad, Fugard frequently appeared in his work, most notably in the aforementioned “Blood Knot,” “Boesman” and “Pigs,” including in New Haven. “Hummingbird” is a very personal work, inspired in part by a significant relationship in Fugard’s current life and an encounter with a fluttering shadow in his writing studio in San Diego where he spends part of the year, in addition to his home In Neu Bethesda, South Africa.
The main thrust of the play focuses on an elderly writer probably much like Fugard himself, called Oupa, and a typical afternoon he spends with his grandson, ten year old Boba, after the child’s school day ends. We learn that the boy’s father doesn’t like his son spending so much time with his grandfather when he could be studying, while Oupa considers his son to be somewhat pompous and self-important. The two engage in Star Wars or Hobbit style swordplay with imaginary weaponry, which seems to be a part of their ritual greeting. In addition to the playfulness, there’s clearly a teacher-pupil relationship at work, as Oupa peppers his grandson with questions and encourages the youngster to ask questions in return. For example, he tenderly but strictly guides the child through an understanding of “Mr. Plato’s” story of the people in the cave who become mesmerized by shadows projected onto a wall in front of them.
It’s all a battle for the salvation of the young boy’s mind between his grandfather and unseen father, with the stakes being rebellion or conformity. It becomes apparent that the older writer is trying to teach the child to think while simultaneously lamenting the youngster’s loss of innocence that left him open the awe and wonder of the world. But as Boba attempts to answer Oupa’s questions with a logic that he thinks his grandfather expects, Oupa realizes that it is his own sense of innocence and wonder that he has lost as he has tried to provide his grandson and others with the nuggets of reality.
Fugard and Edelstein have chosen to preface the body of the play with a brief scene written by Paula Fourie in which the elderly writer randomly reviews entries in his voluminous notebooks, some dating back to 1960. Adapted from Fugard’s own unpublished notebooks, the excerpts record a variety of the ordinary details of the writer’s life, spanning some six decades with topics ranging from the weather, bird sightings and philosophical ruminations on subjects that have caught the writer’s attention, from love to death and mourning. The scene serves the action of the play by showing some of the things that have been on the writer’s mind that day as one entry stimulates a search for another entry in a different notebook, representing completely different time and location.
Fugard remains spry and energetic throughout the performance, proving once again that he is perhaps his own best interpreter. In addition to starring in many of his works, he’s probably directed even more. He provides Oupa with a skip and a bounce as he chases a hummingbird’s shadow around his study or engages his grandson in some gentle horseplay. He recites the notebook entries as freshly as if they had been written earlier in the day, taking great pleasure in rediscovering what he had written years ago. He captures Oupa’s delight in employing the Socratic method with his grandson, while effectively conveying hurt and disappointment when the boy fails to make the intellectual leap his grandfather had prepared. Edelstein indicates in a program note that because of his age this will probably be Fugard’s last stage role so it is great to see him go out with an elegance and style that befits a great man of letters.
Boba is played by a tag team of twin brothers, Aidan and Dermott Macmillan, with Aidan in the role at the performance caught by this writer. He conveyed a genuine spontaneity in his performance that exhibited little of the archness often encountered in such young performers. The relationship between grandfather and grandson is quite believable, with both Fugard and Macmillan demonstrating a real bond exemplified by their thrill in getting together. Young Macmillan appeared comfortable and enthusiastic in the physical demands of the role, including frequent hugs with his Oupa. His articulation is clear and understandable.
Set designer Eugene Lee, famous of his 35 year association as designer for "Saturday Night Live," has created a compact, yet detailed study for the aging author, cluttered but not untidy, filled with bookshelves, magazine stands, end tables and such that contain stacks of Oupa’s notebooks, each one seemingly in whatever style of composition book was at hand. There are other books, maps on the wall and prominent guide to the birds of California coast, where the play is set. Michael Chybowski’s lighting fills the study with the phases of sunlight appropriate to the time of day, while also casting long shadows over the lengths of the set, which contrast with the magical Tinkerbelle style twinkle of the hummingbird’s shadow. John Gromada provides background musical shadings, as well as the sounds of memory which include the giggles of once innocent youth, a state the elderly writer misses and realizes that his grandson is in the process of leaving.
Edelstein has carefully staged the production to allow for a steady sense of motion that assures that the play never seems static or stilted. He allows Oupa’s character to emerge slowly and subtly through movement and inflection, as he reacts to the various excerpts from his past writing and takes joy in the presence of his Boba. Oupa’s fussiness comes off as quite natural, as does his growing exhaustion as he attempts to keep up with his grandson’s need for activity.
But Edelstein also allows Fugard’s language to resonate allowing us to appreciate the playwright’s deep commitment to the power of the precise written and spoken word to convey emotion, acknowledge memory and celebrate life. At the same time, there is an appreciation for the unachievable, those goals and ideas that keep us moving forward yet may never completely attain, such as one’s ability to capture the shadow of a hummingbird.
For information and tickets, call the Long Wharf Box Office at 203.787.4284 or visit their website at www.longwharf.org. “The Shadow of the Hummingbird” plays at Long Wharf’s Stage II through April 27.
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