“Coming Home,” celebrated playwright Athol Fugard’s latest play, begins in an abandoned one-room house located in rural Nieu Bethesda, part of South Africa’s Karoo region.
It tells the story of Veronica Jonkers (Roslyn Ruff), a woman returning to her childhood home after years of unsuccessfully pursuing a singing career in the big city, Cape Town. Now a mother of a young, precocious and literarily inclined boy, Veronica seeks to bury her painful and life-altering city experience and begin anew.
“She’s dead,” she tells a childhood friend, Alfred Witbooi (Colman Domingo), referring to her pre-urban self, “dead and buried in Cape Town.”
But as soon as she steps inside her old home, old ghosts begin to emerge. Her father Oupa (Lou Ferguson) is one of them. He casually enters the stage and interacts with his grandson, whom he never met in life, and with his daughter.
Veronica’s health steadily worsens as the play progresses, its focus increasingly shifting from her to Alfred and her son Mannetjie. We learn that she has AIDS and that an enraged South African xenophobe has stabbed her Mozambican husband to death.
God-fearing Alfred, exquisitely interpreted by Domingo, provides comedic escape throughout the play, especially before the 20-minute intermission, through his childish personality, boisterousness and his endurance of Veronica’s teasing and bullying. Domingo nails Alfred — down to the walk, the posture and the accent.
And in fact, the actors’ subtle modulations of tone often drive the play’s emotion. Ruff, who also sings in several scenes, shows outstanding skill and control in a scene in which Veronica viciously reprimands Alfred.
The play, whose world premiere was Tuesday night at Long Wharf Theatre, includes two young, emerging talents, Namumba Santos and Mel Eichler, who, respectively, play a kindergarten- and grade school-aged version of Mannetjie.
Though Oupa receives limited stage time, Ferguson makes the best of it by excellently embodying a wise and compassionate man, a man connected to the land through years of constant but fruitful toil.
One of these fruits, we learn, is Oupa’s saved pension money, which Alfred accidentally discovered one day while Veronica was still working in Cape Town, before the play’s start. With Oupa dead, Alfred pocketed the rolled-up bills — so many rand (South Africa’s currency) that his limited formal schooling barred him from knowing how many exactly — with hopes of finally owning a brand-new red bicycle.
When it appears — as he confesses his “sin” to the older Mannetjie — that he has gone out and bought the bicycle, and when in response Mannetjie attacks him in angry retaliation, Alfred, in a heart-wrenching moment, unburdens himself of the burning and unexpected truth:
“It has been so hard for me to keep that money and dream about the red bicycle.”
It’s because of scenes like these than one returns to the theater time after time. Fugard, himself a South African, has a gifted eye for locating (and putting into words!) such moments of touching vulnerability and humanity that, in this case, move one to re-evaluate people who appear to fit a certain preconceived mold.
Although Veronica is bed-ridden toward the play’s end, “Coming Home” carries an overarching message of hope. Like Oupa, we plant seeds — because it is our job, because sometimes it’s all we can do to withstand our harsh reality — not knowing that a late frost might show up unannounced and destroy our effort. But even then, the possibility still exists, as Oupa and Alfred learn one day, that one of those seeds will survive, and grow.
“Coming Home” is approximately two hours long, including intermission, and it runs at the Long Wharf Theatre (222 Sargent Dr.) until Feb. 8.