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Deeply Veldt

Sorrows and Rejoicings follow Ensemble's exiled African poet.


Fortunately, few people in this country have ever had to face political exile, self-imposed or otherwise, since our government (up to the hour of this writing) hasn't made the U.S.A. entirely unlivable for people with opposing views or alternative lifestyles. Of course, that could change in Ohio if legislators continue to harass the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities.

The South African playwright Athol Fugard had to deal with thoughts of abandoning his country in the last years of apartheid, and many of those issues are brought to life in Ensemble Theatre's Sorrows and Rejoicings. The deceptively simple premise is that three women in Afrikaner poet Dawid Olivier's life have gathered, just after his funeral, at his home in the small town of Karoo. Sick with leukemia, Dawid had recently returned from his exile in London to spend his last days in his home on the veldt.

As it turns out, though, his wife Allison, an Englishwoman, and the black servant Marta have a lot in common. Dawid and Marta had an affair extending over many years, and it resulted in Rebecca, the 18-year-old woman who's also in the room. As Dawid is seen in flashback scenes, much is divulged about his past and his relationships with these women: Marta and Allison still quietly pine for him, while Rebecca harbors deep resentment. Indeed, she spends the first hour of this 90-minute work standing and glowering at her mother and Allison in silence.

Directed with a profound sense of stillness and compassion by Licia Colombi, Sorrows explores just how crippling the poet's exile became. Unable to publish or speak under the repressive regime of South Africa, Dawid fled to London, where he met Allison. But without the creative fuel of his homeland, his writing "dried up and clotted like the blood in the veins of a dead man." So he turned to drink and, even though he has the passport to return, he's too ashamed to make the trip until death is imminent.

Marta and Allison get on surprisingly well, once they get past their initial awkwardness. But the play truly comes alive when Rebecca finally lashes out at her mother for forcing her to deny that Dawid was her father and for obsequiously polishing her lover's furniture with her tears.

Ensemble's potent cast includes Robert Hawkes as a thoroughly believable Dawid, appearing at various stages of the man's life and making each era ring true. His scene with Allison (a prim but proud Elizabeth Townsend), drunkenly lamenting his inability to catch even one housefly in dreary London, when they abounded in his hometown, perfectly captures the man's lonely detachment from his geography, his muse.

Also excellent are Renee Matthews-Jackson as the volatile Rebecca and Sonia Bishop as the long-suffering Marta. Even though Bishop could put more passion into the remembered moments, this is a play that pulses with the humanity of loves lost and no longer recoverable.

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