Photo by Craig Schwartz

WORKING IN A POLITICALLY OPPRESSIVE PLACE IS A great career move for a writer, though the oppression needs to be really, really unfair and untenable. (Without that commonly held understanding, any expression of conscience might be mistaken for whining.) Think of countries cursed by headline-making social injustice and blessed, at the same time, by the clarion call of a single playwright who emerges, internationally recognized, as that nation's moral representative. Václav Havel in communist Czechoslovakia, Ariel Dorfman in Pinochet's Chile, Athol Fugard in apartheid South Africa — the literary careers of these men, whose writing reflects such wisdom and compassion, such heroic free-thinking, depended upon their countries' agonies. It takes circumstance, as well as bravery and talent, to make a name. Where would Havel have been without those Soviet tanks? Dorfman without the widows of the “disappeared”? Fugard without the arrests of Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko? But as their countries lurched toward democracy, as their crystal-clear horrors evolved into the comparatively muddy, petty horrors of most bodies politic, the scribes lost the sharp, heroic edge of their literary careers.

Havel was elected president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, providing him an excellent excuse to give up writing plays. After Chile's elections ended the long nightmare of government-sponsored torture and assassination, Dorfman stepped back somewhat from the international limelight. Meanwhile Fugard, in plays like The Blood Knot (1961) and “Master Harold” . . . and the Boys (1982), dramatized through his characters the living, breathing attitudes behind apartheid. With that policy now part of history, Fugard, in plays like Valley Song (1995) and this year's Sorrows and Rejoicings (now at the Taper on a bounce from New York and New Jersey), grapples with what he openly acknowledges is his waning significance as a moral authority in the new South Africa.

IT'S NO ACCIDENT THAT SORROWS AND REJOICINGS centers on an exiled poet, who finds solace in the plight of another, more famous exile, Ovid. For this play is not so much about injustice as insignificance. (The “action” unfolds after the central character's funeral.)

Intellectual renegade Dawid Olivier (John Glover) was white, privileged and deeply aggravating to the South African authorities — to the extent that his writings were banned, and all public references to him forbidden. (Fugard's works were never banned; he says he's writing here about some of his friends.) Rather than remain in his Karoo village, silenced and invisible, Dawid left behind his beloved black servant, Marta (Cynthia Martells), and their mixed-race daughter, Rebecca (Brienin Nequa Bryant), for a new start in London with his steely English wife, Allison (Judith Light): from blue skies to gray, from the punishment of solitary confinement in his homeland to the ennui of freedom overseas. In England, Dawid's spirit bent and then snapped from the pressures of homesickness, alcoholism and, finally, leukemia. All the while, Dawid was fixated on his memories of the Karoo. He did finally make it back: a ghostly figure, a dying man, stumbling upon and not even recognizing his own daughter, while she — the progeny of black and white, the future of South Africa — refused to recognize him. That single image seems to sum up Fugard's worst fears.

The play opens with Allison and Marta discussing Dawid's funeral, while teenage Rebecca seethes in an upstage door frame. The entire saga of Dawid's exile and return isn't so much dramatized as narrated. A good 80 percent of the dialogue is in the past tense, which in itself tells volumes about Fugard's state of mind. Even when Dawid appears in flashback scenes, he exists not in his own time, but as part of somebody else's recollection.

The literary precedent, and the production's tone under Fugard's own direction, is that of an ancient Greek tragedy, with its allegory of a splintering family. Even Susan Hilferty's stage design possesses a grandeur approaching the portentous: A massive centerpiece table with four armless chairs symmetrically placed on either side stands against a looming backdrop of double walls, like rust-toned slabs of marble, ingrained with abstracted contours of the veldt. In this austere, cerebral room, the past is invoked, symbols rattle around, until, finally, the play's one dramatic action arrives: Allison turns over the keys of the house, in accordance with Dawid's will, to somebody who holds the future in her young, angry hands. Go on, take a guess who it is.

Were there even a dollop of mystery, and if somebody in the play actually had a consequential decision to make, Fugard's tender chamber poem might live up to the epic pretensions of his staging.

The performances don't help: Glover, a fine actor, plays out every hackneyed tick and growl of the misunderstood bohemian poet. How this Byron-of-the-Karoo could even think of sustaining an emotional or erotic life with Light's flinty Allison raises eyebrows. Martells' Marta comes off as a heroic statue carved from the Rock of Gibraltar — probably in keeping for someone who, ever since Dawid left, has been doing little but grieving and polishing that massive, stinkwood table “with my tears,” a task as heavy-going as her lyricism. But Bryant's little Rebecca takes flight (she's a literary cousin to Valley Song's Veronica). A beautiful imp who speaks of sadness through her eyes, Bryant has the opportunity to work herself up emotionally, glowering in silence for the better part of an hour as she stands in the doorway. When she finally enters the room, the effect is mesmerizing.

Raging against the father who abandoned her, and furious with her long-suffering mother for wasting her life while awaiting his return, Rebecca burned Dawid's early poems, which he inexplicably left behind. (A banned poet starts a new career abroad by neglecting to take all of his writings?) Near play's end, Marta, chastising her daughter, expresses directly and eloquently the source of Fugard's anxiety, which is very possibly the source of this play: “For your soul's sake, Rebecca, I hope you know that what you did was terribly wrong. What you turned to ash and smoke out there in the veldt was evidence of a man's love, for his country, for his people — for you! Don't reject it . . . Rejoice in it! Because if you think you and your New South Africa don't need it, you are making a terrible mistake.”

There's a side to this speech that's as elegant as it is elegiac, and there's another side that's disconcertingly self-pitying coming from a writer of Fugard's stature. As though he doesn't fully appreciate all that he's accomplished. Or perhaps he does, and fears that a new generation won't. Someone as wise as Fugard must surely know that he was propelled to greatness in large part by the historical circumstances of apartheid. But as South Africa evolves, its pre-eminent dramatist harks back in time, and at an ever increasing remove. Nothing of the country's AIDS epidemic, unspeakable poverty, dubiously governed Truth and Reconciliation Commission nor the hideous persecution of trade unionists finds its way into the hallowed cloisters of Sorrows and Rejoicings, even as a passing reference. Fugard's newest play could be subtitled “Don't Reject Me,” an understandable plea from a certified sage, though also a stumble from grace.

SORROWS AND REJOICINGS | Written and directed by ATHOL FUGARD | At the MARK
TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Through June 30

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