The last time Athol Fugard performed on a stage in New Haven, in A Place With the Pigs at Yale Rep in 1987, he scurried and hid and played paranoid, in a historical drama about an undetected WWII deserter.
In his grand return to acting, in the world premiere of his The Shadow of a Hummingbird at the Long Wharf Theatre (through April 27), Athol Fugard is still finding himself. This time, though, his beard is not gray but pure white, he shuffles around in pajamas, and the history he records is his own.
The renowned playwright and essayist is imparting wisdom—not the sort of thought-out life lessons he related in his many plays about apartheid and other social injustices. This time it’s more personal and physical and internalized. It’s about growing old and what that means.
Fugard’s considered by many to be the greatest living playwright in the English-speaking world. New Haven looms large in his legacy—the Long Wharf did a notable regional theater production of a couple of his one-acts in the ‘70s, the Yale Repertory Theatre hosted several of his world premieres (including his best-known play Master Harold… and the Boys) in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and much more recently Long Wharf has done no less than four Fugard shows, most of them world premieres, in the past six seasons.
This latest play is so short that it’s been granted an “introductory scene” compiled by Paula Fourie from Fugard’s journal writings. This intro, with the playwright digging through these diaries on a set which resembles an old, busy writer’s workspace, blends into the main play, which begins when Boba, the grandson of Oupa (the grandfather character played by Fugard) comes to visit.
Fugard’s journals, some of which have been published, are not like his plays. The journals tend to be quiet, Thoreau-like observations of life.
Fugard’s play scripts contain similar insights—about humanity, inhumanity, nature, the meaning of “home” and “family.” But the plays are plays. Old-school plays. Melodramas. Plays with plot twists and dei ex machina and angry dialogues and sweet reunions.
Athol Fugard brings such warmth and intelligence and emotional depth to his plays that we forgive him the occasional over-the-top dramatic cliché. There’s certainly one of those near the end of The Shadow of the Hummingbird, but it’s not bothersome. It simply states the inevitable. And, as with most of Fugard’s plays, such big theatrical flare-ups ultimately give the audience a chance to calm down and consider what’s been said.
There are more modern traditions to contend with as well. The Shadow of the Hummingbird is directed by Gordon Edelstein, who is credited with luring Fugard back to the regional stage. Edelstein has not just directed all the recent Fugard shows at Long Wharf but convinced the playwright that Fugard was the only choice to play Oupa in this one. Edelstein’s staging is clean and brisk and no-nonsense, more in the style of one of those one-man celebrity bio-dramas than a layered post-modern drama. Eugene Lee’s set design, meanwhile, is the umpteenth time that someone has chosen to set a Fugard play on a platform surrounded by emptiness, as if it were taking place on a small island. Nothing wrong with these approaches—Fugard’s work is more colorful and frisky than he often gets credit for, and his multi-play musings on independence, personal morality and self-reliance naturally inspire stagings that suggest isolation and intimacy. In this case, Edelstein’s direction and Lee’s design complement each other. The busy set, a study filled with books and Chinese Checker boards and knick-knacks and fishing equipment, gives your eyes a place to wander when the dialogue goes on a bit too long. The blocking, meanwhile, is all about getting the story at the heart of the man/boy dialogue across as clearly and directly as possible.
Bolstering the old-fashioned, conversational nature of the whole endeavor, the cramped crowded study set is apparently contemporary (when Fugard’s character announces what day it is, it’s today’s date, in April 2014), yet there’s virtually nothing electrical or electronic, not even a typewriter. And the staging is real-time, and all human—no elaborate projections or soundscapes, just basic sound and light effects when the presence of a bird must be suggested.
The Shadow of the Hummingbird is a talky play, but one that’s smartly broken up with bits of silliness. (The Long Wharf is getting good at such things; witness Eric Ting’s lively production of Amy Herzog’s 4,000 Miles last month on the theater mainstage.) That journal-reading “introductory scene” is just Fugard solo, searching for things to read amid his cluttered desks and shelves, and then reading them. But at one point he sings and does a little dance. When his Boba (a role cast with twin boys, Aidan and Dermot MacMillan, who take the role on alternate nights) enters for the main play, they scuffle in a fantasy battle which has the 81-year-old Fugard writhing playfully on the floor.
But the thrust of the play—and here’s where it gets really old-fashioned—is a story which the Oupa tells to the Boba. It’s literally about a hummingbird, a nature metaphor rather than a fable. In telling it, Oupa references Plato’s Republic and its search for the meaning of truth and justice. More subtly, with shadows and darting bursts of light, The Shadow of the Hummingbird also evokes that classic work of youthful innocence Peter Pan.
The Shadow of the Hummingbird is very clear, obvious even, about what it wants to accomplish. It wants to pass on the experience and wisdom of an elderly man. It wants to show how important it is to respect and retain the wonderment and curiosity and openness of childhood. And it wants to entertain. Clear and admirable goals which, in the hands of a master, Athol Fugard—writing and acting—are easily met.