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A CurtainUp Review
Coming Home

How wonderful that Coming Home is going to find a home on the stage of the brave and courageous Wilma Theater.— Athol Fugard
Coming Home
Patrice Johnson as Veronica; Antonio J Dandridge as Mannetjie
(Photo Credit: Jim Roese)
Athol Fugard's Coming Home premiered this year at Long Wharf and then went to The Fountain Theater in Hollywood, which is more or less Athol Fugard's theatrical home base. Now it has opened the Wilma Theater's season in Philadelphia. With this play Co-Artistic Director Blanka Zizka directs her fourth Fugard play at the Wilma. Others have been: Statements After An Arrest Under the Immortality Act, The Road to Mecca, Playland, My Children! My Africa!

In this new play Fugard revisits his Valley Song, which concerned the optimistic setting out of vivacious young Veronica from her grandfather's home. Coming Home concerns her sadder but wiser return to the place she once left behind. Like a replay within a play, long discourses on young Veronica's life with her grandfather and her hope-filled flight to Cape Town, subjects of the 1995 play, provide the springboard and core of this work. Coming Home picks up the story with Veronica's dashed hopes.

This is Fugard, and South African issues are the engine of his creativity, so it is understood that Veronica is meant to represent her country, whose celebrated rebirth has been frustrated, leaving it in need of leadership, international relief, and access to retrovirus drugs. Fugard addresses the considerable and distressing troubles of the South African people within his chosen context while avoiding the pulpit.

Large societal issues are never preached, but the effects are shown in this small, personal story. Though political, it's not approached through politics in the usual sense. And while treading on the hairy edge of over sentimentality, it does not stray over the line, a sign of an astute playwright and a good director.

The utterly simple story comes from the heart and for the heart, and it is in no hurry. The way the story inhabits space and time runs counter to popular theatre culture. Garrulous and stationary, it requires strong acting to keep it afloat. It is a good thing that Fugard has been pre-endeared to this knowledgeable theatre audience, for the play demands patience. And even though it provides inspiration and moments of comic relief, particularly from Veronica's friend Alfred (Nyambi Nyambi) it is heavy on narrative and light on action. Things mostly don't happen, because most of the important things already have happened. Except for the redeeming, surprising turn in the second act, all passions have pretty much been spent.

Strong, interesting performances are given by the principals. Patrice Johnson tackles the difficult role of Veronica. The young boys playing her son Mannetjie at different ages (Elijah Felder, Antonio J. Dandridge) handle their parts like veterans. Lou Ferguson is a comfortable Oupa (grandpa). However, a question arises regarding the choice of overly somber behavior for Veronica's son Mannetjie at schoolboy age. Even under trying circumstances a boy will be a boy, and a more engaging approach to this child role might have lifted some of the play's unnecessarily ponderous weight.

South African native Mogauwane Mahloele's enchanting music is played during transitions. If only the music could background more of the performance.

Anne Patterson's plain, poetic scenic design supports and envelops the characters. The story unfolds like a tableau in the grandfather's old, small South African shack. By the second act, when things begin to transpire, faded yet colorful linens provide decor and the home's walls have been painted blue. It's like living inside a Horace Pippin painting (although Pippin is an American artist). A luminous and changing sky above the shack and its mountain backdrop provides a place for audience eyes to wander for moments of relief from the stasis and sadness in the confining little house.

Coming Home bides its time bringing its story home. A clarion call it is not. It is more an old activist's fond reminiscence, worried rumination, and hope.
Coming Home
by Athol Fugard
Directed by Blanka Zizka

Cast: Patrice Johnson, Elijah Felder, Nyambi Nyambi, Lou Ferguson, Antonio J. Dandridge
Set Design: Anne Patterson
Costume Design: Anne Patterson
Lighting Design: Thom Weaver
Composer and musician: Mogauwane Mahloele
Oct 14- Nov 15, Opening 10/21
2 hours, 22 minutes with one 15 min intermission.
Wilma Theater, Philadelphia
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund
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