NEW HAVEN - In his first play after free elections put a definitive seal on the era of apartheid, 1995's "Valley Song," Athol Fugard told a small, sweet story about a young woman's dreams of a better life and the old men who wanted to dream along with her but were also fearful of what change might bring. Now, in what might be called a play of the post-post-apartheid era, "Coming Home," Fugard brings both the lost dreams and the looming fears back to life.
The new play, which is receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre, opens with a homecoming of sorts. Veronica Jonkers, the young woman who had left her grandfather's tiny house in the rural semi-desert of the Karoo district to pursue big-city dreams of singing and stardom, tentatively pushes open the door of the empty shack she thought she'd forever left behind.
She's back, and she has brought her young son, Mannetjie, with her. But her grandfather is dead, her dreams have shattered, and along with her beat-up luggage and her bittersweet memories she carries a secret that will soon overshadow all the other facts of her life.
Long Wharf prints a slew of statistics about AIDS in Africa in its program, and it is presenting the play along with a symposium, a film screening, and a food drive that all have to do with AIDS, so the revelation of Veronica's secret hardly shocks. But, much as he did with the vast horrors of apartheid, Fugard works to evoke the huge story of the blight of AIDS by telling a much smaller and more specific tale.
At first, it seems clear the tale is Veronica's. But Fugard widens his lens to include not only young Mannetjie but also one Alfred Witbooi, a kind-hearted but simple man who cares for Veronica, and even her deceased grandfather or "Oupa," who returns in a couple of scenes that are a combination of theatrical flashback and spiritual visitation. Particularly in the second act, when Veronica is mostly reduced to a sleeping figure in a bed, we're left with an emptiness where our empathy should be.
But perhaps that's part of Fugard's point: the way the nationwide ravages of this disease leave irreparable holes in the social fabric, blank spaces where once there was, say, a vital young woman with an irrepressible desire to sing. And, by the end, the play's interest has clearly shifted to Mannetjie, who has his own hope: Because he's "clever," as his mother has said, he stands a chance of getting into a decent school and forging his own kind of escape.
At more than two hours, "Coming Home" is looser and longer than it needs to be. Director Gordon Edelstein lets significant pauses stretch beyond their natural life, but the play, and not just the production, could use trimming and tightening. Roslyn Ruff is such a pleasure to watch as Veronica that it seems especially unfortunate to lose her energy in the second act; Colman Domingo's Alfred is eccentrically sweet, but not a strong enough presence to carry on practically alone (except for a boy and a ghost).
Fugard has never been known for the subtlety of his metaphors; he gets away with them because they're grounded in the reality of his characters' lives, but even so they can sometimes feel sentimental and crashingly obvious. Here the metaphors mostly arise out of farming, which is appropriate, as Oupa Jonkers had spent his days painstakingly coaxing big white pumpkins to grow out of the thin Karoo soil. So when Mannetjie starts storing his vocabulary words in the battered tin canister that Oupa used for his pumpkin seeds, it's hard to miss the ultimate metaphor of the play: that this young man will find his own way to plant his own seeds and grow a better life.
There's another farming metaphor, though, that surfaces in two long monologues - first from Alfred, who became Oupa's apprentice after Veronica left, and later from the old man himself - and that gracefully expands to include not just this story but the situation of South Africa today. They're remembering that after a promising planting, a late frost suddenly and cruelly destroyed one year's young crop - all but a single seedling, which Alfred joyfully described to Oupa as the old man, exhausted, lay watching from under a tree.
"Why, Oupa," Alfred asked, "why must the frost come now? We worked so hard."
The old man tells us he just shook his head. " 'It's nothing. Just nothing. Dig them up, Alfred,' I said, 'and plant again.' "
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.