How - and why - Fugard wrote what he wrote

September 29, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Although he has often been called the conscience of his country, Athol Fugard, the great South African playwright, has always claimed to be, first and foremost, a storyteller. In his latest play, "The Captain's Tiger," at Washington's Kennedy Center, he examines the genesis of his storytelling powers.

The result is part coming-of-age story, part portrait of the artist as a young man, and part love story. Best of all, this highly autobiographical play offers such a charmingly apt look at the creative process -- it is like one of those wristwatches with a transparent case -- that it is a near perfect fusion of form and function.

Narrated by the playwright -- who stars as both his present-day, 66-year-old self and as himself at age 20 -- the action takes place aboard a tramp steamer called the S.S. Graigaur. There the young Fugard served as the captain's personal steward -- or "tiger," in nautical slang -- while attempting to write his first novel.

The novel, which he envisions as "a la Tolstoy," is based on his mother's life. The play's magic begins when he describes an inspirational photo of his mother, Betty, as a young woman. Suddenly we see her, depicted by pretty, smiling Felicity Jones in a long white dress and broad-brimmed straw hat.

Though she is lovely and congenial, she immediately begins editing the nascent manuscript, chiding the author that he's "left something out" of his description of the photo -- a rose adorning her dress. Her editorial comments are one of the chief areas of conflict in this play, as Fugard imaginatively explores the writer's craft.

Initially, Betty's corrections and objections are minor -- the overlooked rose, her dislike of the surname Fugard assigns her. But as the manuscript pages pile up, her criticism becomes more consequential. The author, she feels, is sugar-coating the truth with writing that is "false, exaggerated, sentimental and improbable."

His defense is that he is trying to show how happy and heroic her life might have been if she had not been tethered to a crippled, alcoholic husband. This explanation not only fails to convince her, it literally drives her away, leaving the aspiring novelist with a serious case of writer's block.

While the struggle between subject and writer, parent and child, is the most engaging aspect of "The Captain's Tiger," it isn't the only relationship depicted in the play. There is also a third character -- a Kenyan crew member (Tony Todd) nicknamed "Donkeyman," who works in the engine room. Though he is illiterate and barely speaks English, Donkeyman becomes a major source of encouragement for Fugard, eventually teaching him a hard, important lesson about a writer's responsibility in "a world where a lot of people can't tell their stories," as the older, wiser Fugard puts it.

With the exception of Todd's accent, which sounds distractingly American at times, the performances -- under the co-direction of the playwright and Susan Hilferty, who also designed the set and costumes -- are not only individually moving, they are knitted together with a warm sense of ensemble. Without changing his costume or make-up, the slightly wizened Fugard almost miraculously drops 40 years as he relives his youthful enthusiasm and wonder.

For most of his career, Fugard wrote plays in which apartheid played a major role. When apartheid ended, his work became ostensibly less political. But the wistful, personal nature of "The Captain's Tiger" shouldn't obscure the fact that without the events depicted in this play, none of his other plays would have existed.

Though it comes years after the more hard-hitting "'Master Harold'... and the boys," "Boesman and Lena" and "The Blood Knot," "The Captain's Tiger" is the foundation of them all. A play about the formation of the playwright's conscience as well as his craft, it is a revelatory and ultimately joyful affirmation of a writer's art and mission.

'The Captain's Tiger'

Where: Kennedy Center, off Virginia and New Hampshire avenues N.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays (only matinee Oct. 4); matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Nov. 1

Tickets: $46 and $50

Call: 800-444-1324

Pub Date: 9/29/98

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