If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

Fugard in a Fugard Play at Long Wharf


The legendary playwright, Athol Fugard, is on stage at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre for the first time in 15 years performing in the world premiere of his own play, “The Shadow of the Hummingbird”. The good news is Fugard is an actor still very much worth watching. The lesser news is that one may wish he had selected a better vehicle in which to make his return.

Mr. Fugard has nothing to prove. He is one of our greatest living playwrights with modern masterpieces like “A Lesson From Aloes”, “Boesman and Lena”, “The Road to Mecca” and “Master Harold…and the Boys” to his credit. I fear that “The Shadow of a Hummingbird” will not be in the long list, however, of his finest works. The play, with an introductory scene by Paula Fourie and extracts from Fugard’s own unpublished notebooks, seems even longer than its 60 minute running time would suggest.

In what is basically a two-character contemporary drama, Fugard dominates the stage playing Oupa, an elderly South African writer now living in Southern California, who entertains a visit from Boba, his beloved grandson. Oupa is feeling the ravages of time and has at least one more lesson to teach Boba. He reads to him from the works of Plato and the poet William Blake in order to illustrate the difference between illusion and reality. There is also much chatter about the loss of innocence, something the old man equates to children trying to catch shadows. It all builds to a climax that can hardly be called surprising or, sadly, even very compelling.

It is interesting to note that two previous new plays by Fugard, “Coming Home” and “Have You Seen Us?”, had their premieres at Long Wharf and also proved to be lesser works from this great writer. Is this the fate of acclaimed playwrights who have memorable first acts (Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller) but offer only diminishing returns as they age? There is little in “Hummingbird” that is remotely profound or even very moving. It is an ordinary and uneventful work though, one must concede, beautifully acted throughout by Fugard. The playwright has an easy onstage rapport with the adorable Dermot McMillan who played Boba at the performance I attended (Dermot alternates the role at Long Wharf with his twin, Aidan).

Gordon Edelstein’s unobtrusive direction is welcome and Oupa’s busy office setting features nice details by designer Eugene Lee. But “The Shadow of the Hummingbird” flees from your memory almost as fast as the title creature can take flight. It’s a trifle, a slim parable from a legendary playwright of whom we’ve come to expect much more.

“The Shadow of the Hummingbird” continues at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through April 27. For ticket reservations call 203.787.4284 or visit: www.longwharf.org.     

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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