NEW HAVEN — Athol Fugard is widely and properly recognized as one of the world’s greatest living playwrights. We in Connecticut are fortunate that so many of his works receive their premieres here, earlier at Yale Rep and now at Long Wharf, where recent years have featured a trio of gripping dramas: Coming Home (2008), Have You Seen Us? (2009) and The Train Driver (2010). Long Wharf was also the venue, in January 1997, for a production of The Road to Mecca starring the late Julie Harris.
Now Long Wharf is producing a new work by Fugard, The Shadow of a Hummingbird. What is special about this one is that the main role is performed by the playwright himself. In reality, the play can best be described as sweet and slight — nothing close to the power of those earlier works. But, for the chance to see the 82-year-old artist up close, and for the insight which this particular piece sheds on the man himself, it is a worthwhile and enjoyable experience.
The play spans an afternoon in the southern California study of an elderly retired professor, during which the professor, Oupa (Grandpa), awaits an illicit visit from his beloved nine-year-old grandson, Boba, who is supposed to be doing homework.. Forgetful and disheveled, the old man shuffles about the room, leafing through a lifetime’s collection of notebooks and letters, mixing records of bird sightings with snippets of philosophy.
Once the boy arrives they wrestle, play violent fantasy games, pig out on cookies, and then settle down to serious discussion, over what is important in life. There is a hummingbird flitting outside the study windows, but rather than try to see the actual bird, Oupa counsels that it is better to watch its shadow flickering on the wall. Citing Plato’s metaphor of the men who live in a dark cave and can never see more than the shadows of reality outside, he argues the case that what we see with our imagination is richer and more valuable than the mundane details of the ordinary world.
To Oupa, this is the source of truth, beauty, poetry and love, things that Boba’s stodgy father — from whom Oupa is estranged — would never understand. In the boy he sees a kindred spirit, a rebel and a dreamer, who may not make top marks in school, but who understands the lessons his grandfather teaches.
How much of this play is autobiographical? Fugard does have a nine-year-old grandson, to whom it is dedicated, and he does have mountains of notebooks dating back to 1959, in which he recorded random observations and thoughts, many of which have eventually found their way into his plays.
In a talk-back after one recent performance play, the audience got to hear Fugard’s opinions on the work, and it was good to see that he is definitely sturdier and in better shape than the character he played. He dealt patiently with some rather foolish questions (Why would a play on such a beautiful subject have the character play such violent games? “Because those are the games I actually do play with my grandson”; Is there a reason why the representation of the shadow of the hummingbird is a lot like Tinker Bell the Fairy in Peter Pan? “No. They just couldn’t think of any other way to do it.”).
My favorite audience remark came from the grandmother of Aidan McMillan — one of the identical twins who alternates in the role of Boba — who said “I’ve never seen senile dementia made to look so attractive.”
This is a good play for people who already respect and admire Fugard. It gives him attention he deserves, and it has a lovely set by Eugene Lee.
(The world premiere of The Shadow of The Hummingbird continues on Long Wharf’s Stage II until April 27.
Curtain, tickets and other information is available by calling 203-787-4282 or visiting LongWharf.org.)