Coming Home, now getting its world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre, the master dramatist Athol Fugard once again favors gradual character revelation over intricacies of plot. Grippingly directed by Gordon Edelstein, the play picks up about ten years after 1995’s Valley Song, which saw 17-year-old Veronica Jonkers leave her grandfather, Oupa, a hard-working tenant farmer in South Africa’s arid Karoo region, for the excitement of the big city and her dreams of becoming a famous singer.
It is not difficult to surmise, however, as Veronica (a strong and grounded Roslyn Ruff) returns to the abandoned shack she once called home that the fantasy didn’t pan out. In addition to ragged bedrolls and a few meager possessions, she is carting a trophy from her prodigal journey: a young son, Mannetjie (played at various ages by bright-eyed Namumba Santos and intense Mel Eichler). At first, all we see is an energetic young parent trying to make the best of a difficult situation. So why, in a weak moment, does she pray that her child will someday forgive her?
As it turns out, Veronica has contracted HIV, which currently afflicts roughly a fifth of South Africa’s population, yet is still viewed as a personal failing demanding secrecy and shame. In the play, as in real life, a criminally negligent government stints on antiretroviral drugs, flouting science to advocate a “natural” cure. Unsurprisingly, Veronica self-medicates with bananas and vitamins. Yet, while angrily acknowledging that she’s doomed, she embarks on a comprehensive campaign to ensure her child’s well-being. It’s a tribute to Fugard’s skill as a playwright — and Ruff’s as an actress — that the play manages to skirt the shoals of bathos while boldly, methodically, and often humorously charting a course for certain heartbreak.
It’s also a brilliant move on Fugard’s part to counter Veronica’s tragic tale with the presence of her goofy, simple childhood pal, Alfred Witbooi (Colman Domingo, as antsy and unfiltered as a child), who is on hand to help tease out the story. While Alfred — who is barely eking by yet content as Oupa’s successor in the fields — is elated to have Veronica back, he is also puzzled that it took her so long to return and fully expects to hear tales of triumph. Alfred may be a fool — in fact, he’ll cheerfully celebrate the fact — but, in a surprise turn toward the end of the play, he shows himself to be a far from holy fool.
Like his characters, Fugard’s language is plain, containing only the poetry of the everyday, and his metaphors are simple if never simplistic. Still, this great writer has given us another unforgettable glimpse into modest lives of unfathomable grandeur.