‘Hummingbird’: Athol Fugard speaks for himself

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fugard4Between now and April 27, Connecticut theatergoers have a chance to see a new play by one of the world’s greatest living writers — Athol Fugard’s “The Shadow of the Hummingbird” — which he happens to be starring in himself.

Fugard and New Haven have been a marriage made in heaven for the past 30 years. In the early 1980s, the South African playwright/actor formed an alliance with Lloyd Richards at Yale Repertory Theatre which resulted in world premiere productions of “Master Harold…and the Boys” and “The Road to Mecca,” as well as several major revivals.

Over the past decade, Fugard has returned to New Haven to collaborate with Long Wharf Theatre artistic director Gordon Edelstein for the first productions of “Coming Home” and “Have You Seen Us?” and now “The Shadow of the Hummingbird.”

Early Fugard plays such as “Blood Knot” and “A Lesson from Aloes” dealt with the horrors of apartheid in his native land; the more recent work has been just as strong but perhaps more personal, with the writer looking inward at his own life.

fugard3“Hummingbird” is about the relationship between a man in his 80s and his grandson. Oupa tries to get the young Boba to recognize the innocence and freshness of childhood before it slips away.

The old man wants a second childhood where a shadow on his wall can possess the same magic it might have had when he was a boy.

“I wasted my chances. I allowed the mystery and splendor to slip away through my fingers because I took it all for granted. So here I am now asking myself, is it too late for anything other than a dream?,” Oupa says.

In the opening scene, which is reminiscent of Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Night,” the old man searches through his journals for a past moment he wants to remember. As he reads from entries going back as far as the early 1960s, Oupa is alternately bemused and outraged by what his younger selves thought and wrote.

The arrival of his grandson halts this rumination and the old man tries to get the boy to appreciate a precious stage of life he will be losing.

“The Shadow of the Hummingbird” runs an hour without an intermision but it is packed with emotion and a clear appeal to the audience to relish their brief time in this world. Fugard is a wonderful actor and having to play opposite a pair of twins alternating in the role of Boba (Aidan and Dermot McMillan) was clearly keeping him in the moment at the performance I saw Thursday night.

Fugard’s words are bolstered by a superb physical production. Set designer Eugene Lee has created a very lived-in looking study than can be quickly transformed into a place of the imagination through Michael Chybowski’s terrific lighting design. And John Gromada’s sound work is beautifully subtle. Edelstein’s direction pulls all of these elements together into a seamless evening.

“The Shadow of the Hummingbird” becomes an example of the very thing Fugard is talking about in his play — a special moment that should be recognized and relished.

Joe Meyers

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