NEW YORK — BOESMAN AND LENA Play by Athol Fugard. Directed by Mr. Fugard. At the Manhattan Theatre Club City Center Stage One through March 22.
WHEN "Boesman and Lena" was first presented in the United States in 1970, the South African government denied playwright Athol Fugard a passport to visit the production. Two decades later, the Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting a revival directed by the author. At least to that extent, things have changed for the better. The new revival casts Lynne Thigpen, Keith David, and Teepo Mokone in the roles originated here by Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, and Zakes Mokae. It's the present sponsor's second time a round with this powerful work - a work of acute observation and deep humanity.
"Boesman and Lena" takes place along the tidal mud flats of the Swartkops River on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. Bulldozed out of their most recent shantytown home, the heavily laden couple have made their way on foot to the spot that is to be their resting place for the night. With Boesman's impatient goading, Lena tries to recall the route they have taken. Soon they become involved in the immediate tasks of preparing for the night's stay. Lena starts a fire for cooking. Boesman puts together a makes hift shelter from which Lena is pointedly excluded.
The familiar rituals are interrupted by the arrival of Outa (Mr. Mokone), a frail, elderly black man whom Lena welcomes despite Boesman's churlish hostility. Although the Xhosa-speaking stranger can't understand her, Lena pours out the sad tale of her life with Boesman, of the children she lost at childbirth or soon after, and the prospect of what lies ahead. "He walks in front, I walk behind," she tells the stranger. "It used to be side by side, with jokes." Only for brief moments does Fugard allow glim pses of the former and happier relationship.
Meanwhile, as the drama unfolds, the strength of Lena's compassion proves more than a match for the weakness of Boesman's bullying. Ms. Thigpen and Mr. David play out the melancholy domestic drama with a full appreciation not only of its present volatile tensions but of the loving camaraderie that marked the days when they walked "side by side, with jokes."
Thigpen's battered Lena is decidedly the sympathetic partner; she even manages a little dance step at one point. David's Boesman enjoys a moment of triumph in a defiant paean to the freedom he perceives in their downtrodden state.
The relationship between the two dispossessed "coloreds" acquires a new dimension with the arrival of Outa. Mokone plays the fatally stricken old man with a self-effacement that is all the more telling for its quietude. In the hands of these fine actors and under Fugard's direction, "Boesman and Lena" rises to the nobility inherent in the work.
The atmospherics so vitally important to the mood of the play have been impressively achieved in the Manhattan Theatre Club production at City Center Stage One. Set and costume designer Susan Hilferty has employed the full width of the stage to create the illusion of the endless mud flats and the long path traversed by Boesman and Lena as they make their way downstage.
Dennis Parichy's lighting begins with a burnt orange sunset and gradually simulates the sense of surrounding darkness in which the play - performed without intermission - pursues its almost classic course.