Great playwrights have always attempted to illuminate broad human truths by writing about their own individual demons. Tennessee Williams is the classic American example: His plays consistently give voice to the strange psychoses of the Southern women--his mother and sister--who were significant in his life. Likewise, Ireland's greatest living dramatist, Brian Friel, places many of his plays in the mythical Irish village of Ballybeg and peoples them with characters who wrestle with everyday problems common to us all.
It's time to add South Africa's Athol Fugard to this select list of autobiographical dramatists. In Fugard's case, the characters are working-class folk who must deal with the complications brought on by South Africa's notorious apartheid government and its subsequent overthrow. But because Fugard's forty-year writing career exactly parallels the forty years of apartheid in his homeland, the social subtext of his plays often overshadows the genius with which the playwright has crafted his recurring family of characters. As a result, directors often rush to emphasize the political aspects of Fugard's dramas and wind up trampling the playwright's carefully drawn stories in the process.
Not so with the Denver Center Theatre Company's outstanding production of Fugard's two-character play Valley Song, now being staged at the newly remodeled Source Theatre. Under the exquisite direction of Bruce K. Sevy, DCTC veteran Tony Church and company newcomer Terrilynn Towns keep the focus on the hopes and dreams of their characters even as they elicit Fugard's theme about the need for his countrymen to embrace South Africa's political reforms.
Veronica (Towns) is a young "coloured" girl living with her grandfather, Abraam "Buks" Jonkers (Church), in a remote village located in the fertile Karoo Valley. Veronica yearns to leave her farming village to seek fame and fortune as a singer in Johannesburg, a dream she appears capable of attaining in the wake of her country's recent democratic elections. However, she soon learns that democracy has brought problems as well as blessings: Whites are buying up land, causing Buks and Veronica to pay a different kind of homage to their landlord, The Author (Fugard based the play on his own experience of buying a home in the Karoo). The two discover that while they may be free politically, they're still enslaved economically.
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Both Church and Towns bring real artistry to their portrayals. In fact, on opening night, they held the audience spellbound for the duration of the ninety-minute, intermission-less play. In a clever bit of double casting, Church portrays both Buks and Fugard's autobiographical storyteller. Constantly transforming himself between sharecropper and landowner amounts to a tour de force for the former Royal Shakespeare Company actor, and he pulls it off with astonishing simplicity. To her credit, Towns not only holds the stage with Church, she nearly steals it from him: The young Englewood native's touching portrayal is one of the most refreshing performances seen on area stages in recent years.
Except for two emotionally charged confrontations between grandfather and granddaughter, there are no theatrical pyrotechnics here. A simple set design reflects the strikingly clean lines of Fugard's drama; the stage is bare save for five small tree branches and four wooden apple crates. The effect is to focus our attention on the evolving relationships between people wrapped up in a nation's inexorable struggle. The result is a magical evening of theater from a playwright well on his way to achieving a theatrical greatness all his own.
Valley Song, through March 28 at the Source Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.