by Frank Rich on January 30, 1992
Whether or not you get to the Manhattan Theater Club’s revival of “Boesman and Lena,” you can always see another, informal version of its drama day or night on a Manhattan sidewalk or subway platform or vacant lot. Athol Fugard’s image of an itinerant homeless couple sheltered within their scrap-heap possessions and awaiting the next official eviction is now as common in New York City, among other places, as it was in the South Africa where he set and wrote his play in the late 1960’s. Even at the time of its premiere, “Boesman and Lena” was recognized as a universal work that might speak to audiences long after apartheid had collapsed. But who would have imagined that the universality would soon prove so uncomfortably literal?
The troublesome thing about the Manhattan Theater Club production, which Mr. Fugard himself has directed with Keith David and Lynne Thigpen in the title roles, is that it is less searing than the version playing outside the theater. The problem is not that real life has rendered “Boesman and Lena” redundant, for, as written, Mr. Fugard’s play can never be outstripped by events. Boesman and Lena, a “colored” couple adrift from both blacks and whites in their own society, are more than a journalistic paradigm of homelessness or of South African racist oppression. Their shared life, alternately a refuge and a brutal prison, is above all a marriage, observed by the author at a microscopic range Strindberg might have admired and as elemental and timeless as the primitive campsite where the play’s single evening of action takes place.
What really makes this “Boesman and Lena” tame is a mundane matter, that of the production. As a director of his own canon, Mr. Fugard has ranged from supple (” ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the Boys”) to stagy (“My Children! My Africa!”), and he has not always shown a sophisticated ear for the tonal nuances of American acting. “Boesman and Lena” brings out his weaknesses. While the play is hardly realistic — if anything, it unfolds in a self-consciously Beckett-like void — its metaphors are still rooted in intimately observed human behavior. Yet starting with Susan Hilferty’s gorgeous but almost too elegantly composed design of the Swartkops River mud flats setting, this “Boesman and Lena” tends to announce itself as a larger-than-life classic. The highly theatrical solo turns Mr. Fugard has elicited from his two gifted leading players often fail to connect with each other, and in tandem they often jolt us out of the play’s hermetic realm.
Lena is the more crucial role, for “Boesman and Lena” is to a large extent her digressionary monologue. Ms. Thigpen, an emphatic performer with a rich mezzo voice, cuts such a big-boned figure both vocally and physically that all the rags at a costume designer’s disposal cannot make her seem like someone who day and night must scrape out the most marginal, impoverished of existences in a wilderness. Ms. Thigpen’s Lena is not merely the strong survivor she must be — “There’s still daylights left in me!” she cries — but an often exhausting paragon of take-charge leadership, with nearly all her mood swings, from joyousness to rage to grief, coming at the audience at the same high pitch. It is hard to reconcile this performance with a heroine who is so disoriented — geographically, emotionally, socially, ontologically — that she is reduced, in one spectacular passage of writing, to retrieving the landscape of her existence by mapping it out with household utensils on top of a wash basin.
Mr. David captures the smoldering violence of Boesman, a man who expresses his own feelings of worthlessness by treating his partner as cruelly as the white world has treated him. The speech in which he identifies himself as “white man’s rubbish” remains harrowing, but it is harder to locate the character’s grace notes, what Boesman calls “the secrets in my heart,” within Mr. David’s full-throttle boisterousness. The blood knot that connects him and Lena, binding them together even now and often in hatred, does not seem rotted so much as completely severed in a production in which each mate tends to pull out all the stops at center stage.
Easily the most effective scenes in this “Boesman and Lena” are those in which the couple’s diurnal dynamic is roiled by the arrival of a third character, Outa, an old black man whose Afrikaans language they cannot understand. Ms. Thigpen’s desperate efforts to elicit a connection with this stranger, if only in the form of his rote repetition of her name, are rending, and Mr. David’s drunkenly vague jealousy of the innocent intruder has an enigmatic complexity his major arias do not. What is more, Tsepo Mokone, the actor playing Outa, boasts a commanding presence that he establishes through the simplest means: his still posture as he huddles beneath a blanket before Lena’s fire, the slight sparkle in his peaceful eyes, the calm and mellifluous cadences of his indecipherable words. In Mr. Mokone’s performance, one rediscovers the drama that can make “Boesman and Lena” such powerful, even hopeful theater, that of a man finding the home within himself that a heartless universe will not provide. Boesman and Lena Written and directed by Athol Fugard; sets and costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Dennis Parichy; associate director, Ms. Hilferty; production stage manager, Sandra Lea Williams; associate artistic director, Michael Bush; general manager, Victoria Bailey. Presented by Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, managing director. At City Center, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan. Boesman . . . Keith David Lena . . . Lynne Thigpen Outa . . . Tsepo Mokone