Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Theater Review: The Shadow of the Hummingbird -- Long Wharf

Athol Fugard and Aidan McMillan. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Playwright Returns to Stage in Story of Trying to Recapture Innocence in the Shadow of Old Age
By Lauren Yarger
Playwright Athol Fugard takes to the stage for the third of his plays to receive a world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre: The Shadow of the Hummingbird, directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein.

Fugard plays Oupa, a man struggling in the onset of Alzheimer’s to regain the innocence of his youth before it’s too late. He searches through a number of old journals for the key and passes the days trying to inspire his young grandson, Boba (the role is alternated by twins Aidan and Dermot McMillan), to explore the knowledge the world has to offer without losing the youthful innocence that once had him believing he could capture a shadow and play with it.

In the midst of playing elaborate sword games or discussing the meaning behind Plato’s Republic, a bond of love between the two becomes apparent. Oupa shares stories of watching birds in his native South Africa, but gets very angry when Boba doesn’t like the Plato story.

Boba already is risking his parents’ wrath – he’s not supposed to be spending time with the old man who insulted his “idiot” son whom God gave him as a joke for an heir. Oupa instead wills all of his “shadows” to his grandson. Meanwhile, there’s also the matter of Oupa’s rages, which are of concern as well….

Oupa and Boba wait each day for the appearance of a hummingbird, and while Boba enjoys seeing the bird itself, Oupa wants to be able to think once again that its shadow (created by Lighting Designer Michael Chybowski) is the real thing.

The play, just an hour in length, has one moving scene in particular that makes it worth seeing, but honestly, if this were anyone by Athol Fugard, the play might not otherwise get a production.

An opening scene, written by Paula Fourie using Fugard's unpublished notebooks, leaves the audience as confused as the old man wandering around in his pjs and a fleece vest (costume design by Susan Hilferty) while muttering “shadows” over and over. Who is he? What are these journal entries he is reading? Are they his? Someone else’s? About 10 minutes in, we are very, very happy that signs posted in the theater announced a 60 minute run time.

It picks up, however, and the interaction between grandfather and grandson, as directed by Edelstein, is sweet and touching (and we get a sense that there is affection between them off stage as well). That one outstanding scene, where Oupa explains that he regrets having discouraged Boba form  catching that shadow years ago, and that he is searching for the innocence he once had before he “allowed mystery and splendor to slip through my fingers,” is very poignant and moving. It captures the playwright’s eloquence and ties everything together (finally).

The production is nicely appointed, with Set Designer Eugene Lee creating Oupa’s Port Elizabeth home with clutter that has accumulated through the years (and indicative of the growing clutter in his mind) and the always excellent John Gromada provides sound effects to enhance the mood.

The Shadow of the Hummingbird runs through April 27 at Long Wharf's Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Performances: Tuesday 7 pm; Wednesday, 2 and 7 pm; Thursday, Friday at 8 pm; Saturday 3 and 8 pm; Sunday 2 pm. Tickets are $40-$74.50. 203-787-4282; www.longwharf.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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