Reviewed by Judy Richter
Apartheid is no longer official government policy in South Africa, but now the government is responsible for another scourge -- AIDS -- which in 2008 led South African playwright Athol Fugard to write "Coming Home," being staged by Berkeley Repertory Theatre. An article in the Berkeley Rep program cites a November 2008 London Telegraph story estimating "that more than 330,000 South Africans have died of AIDS due to the government refusing antiretoviral drugs" to its sufferers.
It's difficult for the mind to get around such a vast number, but Fugard makes it more understandable by focusing on just one person, Veronica Jonkers (Roslyn Ruff). He introduced her in his 1995 play, "Valley Song," in which Veronica, then 17, left her home in the rural Karoo to become a singer in Capetown. It was a hopeful play written shortly after the end of apartheid.
In "Coming Home," a disillusioned Veronica has returned to her childhood home, where she was raised by her grandfather, Oupa (Lou Ferguson). With her is her young son, Mannetjie (Kohle T. Bolton as the younger boy, Jaden Malik Wiggins as the older). Oupa has died, but he left the house to her. As she and the boy explore the one-room, tin-roofed home (set by Eugene Lee with lighting and projections by Stephen Strawbridge), they're joined by her childhood friend, Alfred Witbooi (Thomas Silcott). He's overjoyed to see her and has brought her the household items that he removed for safekeeping from scavengers after Oupa's death. In the second act, four years later, Veronica is very ill, suffering from the AIDS she acquired in Capetown. Even though there has never been romantic love between her and Alfred, she wants him to marry her to make sure that her son will have a home after she dies.
Although the theme is tragic, there's hope, symbolized by the pumpkin seeds that Oupa so carefully saved from one year for planting the next. And even though Oupa is dead, he appears at various times to impart his wise advice to work hard. Skillfully directed by Gordon Edelstein, the actors are well chosen. Ruff's Veronica is a loving mother who does the best she can for her son even as AIDS saps her strength and slows her movements. Alfred isn't the brightest fellow in the village by a long shot, but as portrayed by Silcott, he has an innate wisdom to go with his caring nature and willingness to do anything for Veronica and Mannetjie. The grizzled Ferguson does well as Oupa, and Wiggins is impressive as the older Mannetjie copes with the changes in his life.
The costumes are by Jessica Ford with sound by Corrine K. Livingston and African-flavored compositions by John Gromada. Lynne Soffer is the voice and speech consultant who helped the actors with their accents.
Fugard has rightly been hailed as one of the world's foremost living playwrights. "Coming Home" enhances that reputation.