Sometimes closeness is the best reminder of distance. At the beginning of Yale Cabaret’s “The Island,” Athol Fugard’s Tony Award-winning 1973 apartheid-era drama, the political prisoner Winston (Winston Duke DRA ’13) douses himself with a bucket of water, and then lies heaving on the wooden stage. He is near enough that the rivulets trickling down his forehead seem tidal in proportion, and yet the loudness of his keening prevents us from forgetting that his character is beyond touching, beyond our help.
The production is a study in proximity. “The Island” takes place on Robben Island, a political prison in South Africa for violators of apartheid law. The action, confined to a small wooden stage around which the audience sits, is at once tangible — if you extend your arm, you might brush the actors’ skin — and tantalizingly beyond reach.
John (Paul Pryce DRA ’13) is attempting to convince a less-than-enthusiastic Winston, his cellmate, to play Antigone in a two-man rendition of the play for the other inmates. Although their preparations bring them closer, news that John’s island sentence has been reduced from 10 years to three months threatens to wrench them apart. Despite the characters’ physical nearness to each other, they are suddenly a world removed, separated not only by inches but the leagues between freedom and confinement.
There are only two characters in “The Island,” but the actors’ eyes are practically a third and fourth. To stare into Mr. Pryce’s eyes, ravished by hope from the news of his sentence reduction, is to be completely captivated.
The intellectual John, portrayed with earnest fervor by Mr. Pryce, insists that the reluctant Winston grasp “Antigone”’s significance and relevance to their plight. Just as Antigone is imprisoned for acting in accordance with her honor, so, too, are the island prisoners held captive for their beliefs — we learn later that Winston is jailed for burning his passbook before a police officer.
But Winston is not so easily convinced. In the masterful hands of Mr. Duke, he is someone who has lost his ideals in the plodding reality of the island. “I know why I am here, and it is history, not legends. … This is child’s play,” he says derisively of “Antigone.” Mr. Duke’s Winston is both a source of comic relief and a cold reminder that, in the abyss of his confinement, his bumbling humor is all he has left.
At the conclusion of the play, their friendship on the mend, they stage “Antigone,” with John as King Creon and the once-reluctant Winston playing the eponymous heroine. Wearing a braided straw wig for hair, crudely crafted necklace and long skirt, the statuesque Mr. Duke nevertheless projects a palpable masculinity.
In one of the play’s most compelling scenes, John lifts a copper cup from the stage floor, brings it tenderly to his ear, and speaks into it as though it were a telephone. He recounts the details of his days at the prison, growing somber when he asks to pass on news to his wife. Finally, he puts down the cup, twirling it helplessly between his fingers, but continues to speak into the ether: “Tell her … it’s getting cold, and the worst is yet to come.” Given the desperate truth of his acting, that he is only pretending comes as a surprise.
Winston will spend the rest of his life on the island, but his gaze contains a defiant universe. That is what this staging of “The Island” does so well — it cramps its miniscule stage with the boundless feeling of its actors. Foreign is their predicament, but familiar is the human condition.
“The Island” runs through Jan. 26 at the Yale Cabaret.