New Haven, Conn. — In the second half of Athol Fugard's new play, ``A Place with the Pigs,'' the protagonist is beaten, doused with water, and vigorously reproached by his longsuffering wife for having ``abandoned his humanity'' and taken refuge in a pigsty. ``You're on your own two legs and talking,'' she says to her sputtering spouse. ``That is as much as I can do. You are on your own.''
It is an exhortation that reveals much about the thematic intent of this most recent work by South Africa's leading playwright.
For more than 25 years, Mr. Fugard has probed the tragedy of his native country in the most poignant terms. His plays, including the Tony-nominated ``Master Harold and the Boys,'' transmute the grim legacy of apartheid into galvanizing and intimate theater. In ruthless pursuit of enlightened conscience - his own as well as his audience's - Fugard has become one of the world's foremost living dramatists and one of his country's most articulate social critics.
Now, in ``A Place with the Pigs,'' having its world premi`ere at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Fugard is moving into fresh territory. Despite some ambitious thematic undertakings - it is Fugard's most metaphoric work - the play nonetheless succeeds more as a vehicle for its provocative author/director/actor than as fully realized drama.
It is a play structurally akin to his other work: Humor and tragedy are wedded with simple dramaturgy and searing morality in a drama with two characters, one set, and little plot. However, ``A Place with the Pigs'' represents a topical departure for Fugard. Not only is this his first drama not set in South Africa, but it is his most elliptical portrayal of racial injustice. No black characters appear, nor is the word ``apartheid'' ever spoken. Where ``A Lesson From Aloes'' chronicled a country's violation of its people and ``Master Harold'' explored man's capacity for crimes against his fellow man, ``A Place with the Pigs'' takes a far broader view of inhumanity.
Indeed, this somewhat abstract indictment of oppression is, perhaps, Fugard's most personal work. Like his protagonist, Fugard here is on his own: As a writer, he confronts the limits of his profession; as an individual of conscience, he probes man's limitless capacity for self-determination. ``All [I've] learned in here is to whine and [be] self-pitying,'' says the protagonist just before making life-changing alterations. ``A Place with the Pigs'' is a spare and moving portrait of admonishment and action.
Based on an actual event involving a Soviet deserter in World War II, Pavel Ivanovich, ``A Place with the Pigs'' suggests parallels to the author's own state - a man spiritually removed from his own land. Tracing nearly 40 years of the deserter's self-imposed exile, the play moves from the literal to the figurative. What is rooted in recorded history (the deserter's emergence after four decades of hiding out with pigs) is transformed into that ``pigsty ... somewhere in the author's imagination.''
What begins with the anniversary observance of the war victory evolves by play's end into the protagonist's victory over self. After years of suffering isolation and fear of reprisal, Pavel rouses himself to set the pigs free and then surrender to the authorities. ``Do it, and do it now,'' he admonishes himself. ``That is an order.'' It is a trans-mogrification of individual character and environment, resulting from what Pavel describes as ``total spiritual exhaustion.'' It is an apocalyptic change, whose repercussions reverberate far beyond the confines of the stage.
Fugard tracks his protagonist's growing self-possession through the four scenes comprising the intermission-less, 100-minute drama - scenes as distinct from one another as symphonic movements.
The bustling fanfare attendant to the war anniversary celebration heard from offstage yields to an encroaching sense of stillness. Conversely, Pavel's moral paralysis gives way to a capacity for action. If that resolve requires confronting his own potential for brutality first (Pavel kills flies for sport and then murders one of the pigs), it only adds moral weight to his ultimate course of action. ``It is crooked fate,'' says Pavel in the play's final moments, ``when surrender and liberation are tied up together.''
Fugard has chosen to chronicle his protagonist's evolution with subtle, rather than fully formed, dramatizations. Praskovya, the ever patient spouse (Suzanne Shepherd), serves as little more than an ideological foil to the questioning, raging Pavel. As a consequence, Fugard leaves himself no small challenge, as actor and director, to convey Pavel's Angst. It is a challenge he only partially meets. With his fussy, feral movements, most of Fugard's performances have been somewhat undifferentiated. His directing is equally insular. In this production, a necessary quotient of violence and tension is missing.
Indeed, with the one exception of the midnight walk where Pavel and Praskovya escape for a brief respite from the sty, this astringent play is most succeessful in its extended soliloquies. They are monologues ranging from Pavel's somewhat tedious recounting of his desertion to the play's final riveting exhortation: ``Open the pens. Let them go. It's that obvious, that simple.''
It is this relentless moral insistence in the face of the terrible destinies of man's own making that remains Fugard's most impressive achievement.
It continues at the Yale Rep through April 18.