Fugard’s road: sometimes it’s all in the family

Profile's season of plays by the South African master reveals a world beyond race

Eileen DeSandre as Miss Helen. Jamie Bosworth Photography.

Eileen DeSandre as Miss Helen. Jamie Bosworth Photography.

The theater world knows that the white South African playwright Athol Fugard, along with his black co-artists Zakes Mokae and John Kani, was a brave and brilliant figure in the battle against apartheid. The shorthand is, Fugard writes political plays about race, and as shorthands go that’s certainly true.

But if that were the whole story, his plays would have faded with the overthrow of apartheid, and that hasn’t happened. They remain potent dramas, historical in context but intensely up-to-the-minute emotionally. Race is at the core of Fugard’s writing but it isn’t the only thing he writes about, and Profile Theatre’s current season of his plays has done a sterling job of highlighting at least one other dominating theme: the relationship between older and younger generations. It’s not exactly about parents and their children, because sometimes the parental generation is skipped, and sometimes the story’s not about a blood relationship at all but about created families as complex and binding as any “natural” families.

Profile’s focus on spotlighting the works of a single playwright each season is unusual and highly attractive, because it allows audiences to get a more nuanced picture of a writer’s body of work. In that sense it’s similar to what the Oregon Shakespeare Festival does year after year with its namesake writer, and to the festival of August Wilson plays that have been produced by several Portland companies over the past several months. “Curated” is becoming a dreadfully overused word (the other day I heard someone extolling a certain greengrocer’s “well-curated root vegetables”) but smart curation is what Profile’s about. And Fugard is a particularly good subject.

I’ve seen three of this season’s shows: 1982’s “Master Harold … and the boys,” 1996’s “Valley Song,” and the current “The Road to Mecca,” from 1984, which finishes its run Sunday. And while I’ve missed some other good ones in Profile’s season, including “Coming Home” and “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead,” I’ve also seen a lot of Fugard elsewhere, including some landmark Portland productions in the ’80s with the likes of Wrick Jones and Junn Wilson. What stands out, even when race is central to the story, is how tightly Fugard weaves the personal with the political.

“Master Harold,” a largely autobiographical play, is about a bright but heedless young white South African’s attitudes toward his family’s black servants, but it’s also very much about fathers and sons ­– in this case, complicated by the fact that one of the servants is really a surrogate father to young Hallie, whose biological parents are largely absent. “Valley Song” was a fine short-run production featuring Chantal DeGroat as a girl dreaming of musical stardom in Johannesburg and Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran J.P. Phillips as her country grandfather who’s raising her and fears she’ll get lost in the big city. It, too, is very much a story of conflicting dreams and complicated love.

“Mecca” is much the same, this time with three strong wills instead of two. It’s also the first show directed for Profile by Adriana Baer, who took over this season as artistic director from company founder Jane Unger, who retired. Looks like Profile’s still in good hands. Baer’s production of “Mecca” gets deeply into the twists and turns of a very knotty script, and it benefits from good, unobtrusive design: Jessica Bobillot’s costumes speak subtly to character, and Alan Schwanke’s scenic design makes excellent use of the small stage, providing several crisp, clean playing areas as well as an evocative visual impression of the setting (candles included). Race is certainly part of the story, but this time mostly as a backdrop: in the form of a woman and baby hitchhiking through the desert on the way to a probably desolate future, and in the unseen housekeeper whom the play’s central character, Miss Helen, sees as one of her only friends but is seen in turn as just a pleasant enough employer. In “The Road to Mecca” black Africans are seen mainly in the reflections of the white characters’ consciences.

What happens is fascinating. Miss Helen (the lovely, frumped-down, birdlike Eileen DeSandre, another OSF vet) is the oddball of the small desert town where she’s lived all her life, and its outcast, mostly because she’s retreated behind the borders of her beloved home and garden in the 15 years since her husband diedHelen creates  strange, cast-concrete creatures that clutter her garden, scaring the town’s children and making more than a few of their parents believe she’s in league with the devil. But she’s found something of a soulmate, or acolyte, in a fiery young schoolteacher from the city, Elsa Barlow (Amanda Soden), who sees a lush and wondrous universe in Miss Helen’s garden and her soul. On the day that the play takes place Elsa has driven 800 miles from the city to visit Miss Helen on what she believes to be an emergency call. She fears the bleakness is overcoming her friend, and she must be brought back toward the light. Yet Elsa is packing her own despair with her, and instead of soothing she goes on the attack.

“The Road to Mecca” is filled with conversation that’s really like little speeches, and the temptation is to deliver them like telegrams straight to the audience. There’s a rough poetry to the language (as there is to August Wilson’s, come to that) that elevates the play above its surface naturalism and into a more purely literary realm. For the most part DeSandre, Soden and their co-star, David Bodin, ride the space between the two expertly, speaking naturally to each other as they address bigger matters above the action. The real issue is a matter of balance among the three, a balance that expresses itself both physically and emotionally. Soden, tall and big-boned, towers over the tiny DeSandre and dominates her like a steamroller over blacktop. Bodin, also large, uses the smoother and subtler methods of the authoritative male. DeSandre shudder and bends and gathers her strength. How do they each give and take? How do they mesh? Who’s the top dog – or is there one?

Miss Helen has grown old, and the question is, what’s going to happen with her? She seems frail, forgetful, careless, and the town’s Afrikaaner minister, Marius Byleveld (Bodin), is pressing her to give up her house and garden and move to a room in the church-run retirement home. It’ll be nice, he assures her. She’s be well taken care of. Miss Helen isn’t so sure, but finds his pressure hard to resist. And Elsa is outraged. To take Helen away from the world she’s created, Elsa believes, would be an act of outrageous betrayal. So she bullies, too. And Miss Helen’s caught in the middle.

Bodin, DeSandre, Soden. Jamie Bosworth Photography

Bodin, DeSandre, Soden. Jamie Bosworth Photography

Three kinds of strength are at battle in “Mecca,” and more love than any of the characters knows what to do with. In the desert way, it’s a love that often expresses itself harshly, so much so that it can seem like something entirely different. The titles of two other Fugard plays come to mind: “Valley Song,” because each of these characters is singing a deeply rooted solo song; and “Blood Knot,” because the intense emotions among the three are so strenuously gnarled. Helen and Elsa, unrelated by blood, are bonded as deeply as any grandmother and granddaughter, with all of the generational alliances and misunderstandings that such a relationship suggests. Marius is the outsider, the small-minded local who threatens their view of life – except that maybe he’s not. Bodin is a gifted and subtle actor who settles deep into this old Afrikaaner’s odd blend of affability and austerity, and one of the production’s most pleasing revelations is to watch the way that he gently upends the two women’s dark impressions of him. In the end, important things shut down in “The Road to Mecca.” But important things also open up. If the story isn’t happily ever after, it endures. And it endures, partly, because in the end, people choose what “family” means.

There’s more to come in Profile’s season of Fugard, which includes staged readings, short runs and full productions. “Nothing but the Truth,” a play I don’t know, runs Feb. 13-17. “Blood Knot” takes the stage Feb. 27-March 17 – I saw the 1985 Broadway production that starred Fugard and Mokae, and Fugard’s approach to performing in his own play was illuminating: He was light, elusive, dancerly, humorous yet deadly serious, very Beckett-like. “My Children! My Africa!” runs May 8-26, and a couple of one-night readings – “Knowing Cairo” on April 1 and “Playland” on May 20 – round out the mix.

Next season it’s on to Sam Shepard, who should provide a whole new set of nuances and provocations. Shepard’s an intensely American writer, though not in the mainstream tradition of O’Neill, Williams, Miller and Mamet. He’s much more Western, more of a fantasist, an intriguing blend of Zane Grey, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and maybe Lawrence Ferlingheti to go with an anchor of O’Neill. Should be fun. Fugard, by the way, is also a sort-of American these days. Now 80, he lives in San Diego and still teaches and directs at UC San Diego. If that inspires you to head back to school, go for it.

Soden and DeSandre. Jamie Bosworth Photography

Soden and DeSandre. Jamie Bosworth Photography


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