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Sorrows and Rejoicings

Charlayne Woodard and John Glover
in Sorrows and Rejoicings
(Photo: Bruce Davidson)
"I've had an appointment with the theme of exile for over 30 years," Athol Fugard said recently to an interviewer. Fugard was talking about Sorrows and Rejoicings, the new play in which he finally keeps that long-postponed appointment. Confronting a subject that has occupied him for such a long time, he nearly returns to the world-class writing level he attained in his very best work.

Fugard flouted prohibitions placed on writers during the last decades of apartheid in his South African homeland; though he was never an exile himself, he was often hounded by officials and had his passport revoked in 1967. Having chosen not to forsake his birthplace, and never having been forced to, Fugard has obviously thought long and painfully hard about what might have happened if he had fled out of choice or necessity.

Sorrows and Rejoicings is the result of this autobiographical fantasy; in it, an Afrikaaner exile named Dawid Olivier (John Glover, who bears a clearly calculated resemblance to Fugard) is mourned by his English wife, Allison (Judith Light), and his South African mistress, Marta (Charlayne Woodard). Confronting each other in the dignified Olivier living room after a memorial service for Dawid, the two women, who have more regard for each other than might be expected, recall the man they shared: a poet, an alcoholic, and an exile who returned to his beloved Karoo only 29 days before leukemia did him in. While the women pace the room, Dawid and Marta's teen-aged daughter Rebecca (Marcy Harriell) paces just outside the door with a sullen expression on her face. Walking through the walls of that charged room at regular intervals is Dawid himself, come to haunt Allison and Marta. (Don't fret: Susan Hilferty, who designed the evocative set and quietly effective costumes, has seen to it that those hallowed mansion walls are only suggested.)

As Dawid occupies the memories of the three women, he and they reveal themselves with the combination of harshness and compassion that marks Fugard at his best. The four tormented figures emerge as troubled but intelligent, damaged but striving, resentful but ultimately forgiving. Dawid distances himself from South Africa and the Karoo territory he loves because he hopes the move will allow him to write more meaningfully about everything he's left behind--but, drowning in drink and succumbing to compromised health, he only fails himself and Allison. Referring repeatedly to the poet Ovid and his productive alienation from Rome, Dawid comes increasingly and tragically undone. He's the embodiment of the Edward Said epigram about exile, which Fugard attaches to the play: "It's essential sadness can never be surmounted--a condition of terminal loss." Only in the last of Marta's recollections is David revealed as a man heroically obsessed with the beauty and ugliness of his country.

Allison has come to a country where she feels as out of place as Dawid does in England. She fell in love without realizing how short a distance that love might carry her when she tried to establish herself comfortably on his ground. Her dilemma, as observed and rendered by Fugard, is complex and utterly moving--as is Marta's. Here's a woman who also came to adore a man into whose crumbling world she could, as the political climate decreed, never completely fit. Rebecca, condemned by mixed parentage to be an outcast of another sort (or to feel that way, which is just as troubling), has also had her existence informed by Dawid's restless ghost; she's having palpable difficulty moving past the grief it's caused her and her mother. Her feelings about both her parents are crippling her, all but unendurably.

As the confrontations in Sorrows and Rejoicing come one after another, the suffering that the end of apartheid and its aftereffects have inflicted on the various populations of South Africa is made increasingly plain. As Fugard depicts them, the accumulated feelings come to possess the burning intensity of a flame. But another revelation about Fugard's compulsive vision comes into focus as well, and it takes the edge off his accomplishment: He's too schematic. The Sorrows and Rejoicing symbols proliferate until they almost topple the play: The living room in which the afflicted country's peoples are so carefully represented is too patently a metaphor for South Africa. The Stinkwood table that Marta polishes with tears, as Rebecca ferociously points out, is the emblem of wishful integration. Rebecca, half Afrikaans and half black, hangs outside the door, bent on never entering--indicative of that reticence common to a generation that inherits the problems and imperfect solutions of its forebears.

There are a couple of other drawbacks to Fugard's script, most notably the depiction of Dawid. Until our final view of him, he is so pathetic that one wonders what Allison and Marta ever saw in him. Why are they carrying on so about such an obvious loser, a man clinging to the belief that he's a latter day Ovid? When his blazing appeal is finally vouchsafed, it may be too late for some patrons. Another potential detraction is that each of the women defines herself and her aspirations by her relationship to a man. That they all view themselves in this light could be said to underline a basic truth of the classic relationship between men and women, but not everyone will concede as much.

Yet it can't be denied that Fugard, who's about to turn 70, remains a potent writer. It was Alan Paton who wrote Cry, the Beloved Country, but the best South African writers, Fugard prominent among them, might have appropriated the title for any of their works. Fugard continues to cry for his country, and sometimes they're tears of joy. (The sorrows of the drama's title, incidentally, refer to the name Ovid gave to a collection of his poems, and the rejoicings refers to the name Dawid wants to give to a collection of his verse.)

Charlayne Woodard, Marcy Harriell, and Judith Light
in Sorrows and Rejoicings
(Photo: Bruce Davidson)
The opportunities of the play are seized by the cast that Fugard himself has directed. Glover may be seizing his a little too energetically. Standing in for Fugard (or for Fugard's worst imaginings about himself), Glover declaims too boisterously throughout; he needs to be pulled back. (That he hasn't been may be a function of the playwright's steering his own work and not recognizing the pitfalls). Judith Light as the stiff-upper-lipped Englishwoman stiffens that upper lip a bit too tightly, perhaps because she's too aware of her assumed English accent. No reservations need be lodged, however, about the emotional life she's living on stage. Charlayne Woodard, who has yet to make a misstep on stage, brings out Marta's pride and devotion to Dawid as well as her concern about Rebecca's troubled past, conflicted present, and uncertain future. And Marcy Harriell finds a way to clearly convey that past, present, and future.
There are turbulent winds blowing through Sorrows and Rejoicings, underscored by Susan Hilferty's smoky-fires-of-Africa backdrops and Dennis Parichy's dimmed lighting. What Fugard is doing to focus on those winds is the cause of more rejoicings than sorrows.

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