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NY Theater Reviews

Ph: Joan Marcus

BRUTALITY ENDURED

By BRIAN SCOTT LIPTON

Strong performances carry this heartbreaking revival about two South Africans fighting to survive Apartheid.

One could say that Athol Fugard creates bleak worlds on stage, but in reality, the legendary South African playwright primarily re-creates the bleak world he hailed from: a country where black people’s lives were constantly torn apart, literally and figuratively, by Apartheid. So it’s no surprise there’s practically no life to be found in the almost barren, mud-filled landscape that provides the setting for his 1969 play Boesman and Lena.

At least that’s true until the two title characters show up, a long-coupled, often-bickering pair evicted from their shanty town by their white landlords, carrying just a few belongings, and searching once again – perhaps futilely – for their place in the world. As poor as they are, these are rich characters for any two actors to take on, which is why they’ve been previously been portrayed by Ruby Dee and James Earl Jones, Lynne Thigpen and Keith David, and Angela Bassett and Danny Glover.

For South African-born director Yael Farber’s muscular, often heartbreaking revival at the Signature Theatre, this formidable task has been handed over to the sensational Zainab Jah and the estimable Sahr Nguajah, neither of whom shies away from exploring every facet of these wounded (and sometimes wounding), often distraught, but ultimately life-affirming survivors.

Jah – a standout in such works as Eclipsed and Venus – gives one of the season’s most extraordinary performances as Lena, a woman who should be utterly defeated by everything life has thrown at her: dead children, poverty, body aches and the now-perpetually angry Boesman. Still, she rails and wails, often without making much sense. Yet it’s always clear she’s talking just to make sure she’s alive. And even when Lena claims to admit defeat, there’s always something in Jah’s stance or speech that lets us know she isn’t really giving up or giving in.

Not that one could blame her! She gets little attention from Boesman, and when she does it’s often unpleasant, physically and verbally. But Fugard – and Nguajah by extension – slowly lets us realize that this outwardly tough man is suffering from his own inner pain. His elusive dream of “freedom” has proven, time and again, to be at best a dream deferred and most likely a dream unrealized, and his one-time hope for another generation to see a brighter future has been buried in the ground over and over. That he turns to alcohol and cruelty isn’t exactly forgivable, but Fugard makes his plight completely understandable.

As compassionate and compelling as Fugard’s writing can be, one soon realizes great performances are the key ingredient in keeping us engaged in the story. That’s especially true since large sections of the play feature Lena’s rambling conversation with an old stranger (Thomas Silcott) whom she persuades to sit beside her, although he speaks a language neither Lena nor the audience understands. Without Jah’s poignant acting, these scenes could feel interminable.

Moreover, Farber has staged the two-act work without an intermission. This strategy is effective in not breaking the mood of the piece, yet counterproductive in not allowing audiences to take a break, both physically and mentally, from this difficult but ultimately rewarding play.

Still, even two hours of discomfort is but one grain of sand in the hourglass compared to what Boesman and Lena endure – as did so many South Africans.