At 83, South African playwright Athol Fugard remains a vital chronicler of the political, moral and spiritual damage wreaked in his country by apartheid.
The system may have been banned in 1994, but its legacy continues, much the way America is grappling with the original sin of slavery. Rather than lose his subject when his nation changed, Fugard gained new territory for excavation.
"The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek," which opened Saturday at the Fountain Theatre, picks up on the work of remembering and reconciliation that has occupied Fugard since Nelson Mandela altered the course of South Africa's future.
The play, capably directed by Simon Levy, is a small but resonant addition to a distinguished corpus that includes " 'Master Harold' … and the Boys," "The Road to Mecca" and "Valley Song." The Fountain, which has become Fugard's Los Angeles home, has kept us in touch with a playwriting career that is dynamically interwoven with history.
Simply constructed yet highly affecting, this latest play, which was produced this year by New York's Signature Theatre, has a valedictory air to it — the sense of an artist dealing only with essentials. Storytelling and social justice, the twin themes of Fugard's work, are wedded together in a two-act drama that is constructed to resemble a parable.
The painted rocks of the title that dominate Jeffrey McLaughlin's set lend frolicsome color to the harsh, drought-stricken landscape of Mpumalanga Province, where the play unfolds. As in Fugard's "The Train Driver," which was produced at the Fountain in 2011, the earth in "The Painted Rocks" is made to seem at once inhospitable and comfortingly familiar, blasted and sacred.
The inspiration for the drama comes from the story of real-life outsider artist Nukain Mabuza. The first act, which takes place in 1981, focuses on the interaction between Nukain (Thomas Silcott), the artist behind the rocks, and young Bokkie (Philip Solomon), who is coaxing him into painting the last and largest boulder in the field. Carting around the artistic supplies, Bokkie urges "Tata" to work his magic with the brushes, but the weary old man is daunted by the task and urges Bokkie to paint for him, giving him instructions so that the story of his life can be figuratively represented.
Elmarie (Suanne Spoke), the tough Afrikaner woman who owns the farm on which Nukain and Bokkie work, shows up and complains about Bokkie's mischievous ways. She fears he might have a kernel of that troublemaking spirit of the new wave of black protesters causing havoc in Johannesburg.
She also doesn't appreciate the way the rock has been painted to resemble a face with all-seeing eyes and asks that it be repainted in the decorative manner of the others. Witnesses, even an inanimate one, seem to disturb her — and with good reason, given the racially divisive laws benefiting her.
The second act takes place in 2003, a decade after apartheid has been dismantled. Bokkie, grown up and using his proper name, Jonathan Sejake (Gilbert Glenn Brown), returns to repaint Nukain's story on the rock but is stopped by Elmarie, who instead of wearing a cross is donning a holster with a gun she has no qualms about whipping out. (It's a credit to Spoke that the crucifix seems as deadly as the pistol.)
A neighbor has been brutally killed by blacks, and Elmarie has no intention of becoming a victim of an apparent stranger violating her "property rights." The conversation that ensues after Jonathan identifies himself as Bokkie captures the complexity of perspectives on the revolutionary changes that are violently working themselves out.
Fugard never lets us forget that history is the handiwork of human beings and that progress is contingent on the courage of individuals to momentarily let go of their grudges and listen to what the other side has to say.
The first-act exchange between adorable Bokkie and kindly, doddering Nukain can seem precious, a consequence more of the theatrical situation than the genial performances of Solomon and Silcott. But once Spoke's Elmarie enters the scene barking orders and hurling threats, the oppressive reality of the scene clarifies itself.
Elmarie's second-act conversation with Jonathan is the heart of the play, a collision of irreconcilable truths that must somehow be reconciled for the sake of a country both claim as their own.
Spoke and Brown are note-perfect in their roles. There's isn't a trace of sentimentality in Spoke's Elmarie, whose ferocity has such powerful conviction that it is impossible to dismiss anything she says, no matter how politically indefensible.
Brown's humane Jonathan is a teacher whose soul has been touched by his early bond with an artist, a man whose only possession was the story he tried to etch into the landscape before becoming swallowed by it for eternity.
Artists in their late works often turn their lives into allegories. It just so happens that Fugard's tale is also South Africa's.
'The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek'
Where: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays (call for exceptions). Ends Dec. 14.
Info: (323) 663-1525, www.fountaintheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes