Two figures toiling across a wasteland toward the darkness--Athol Fugard may have been thinking about "Waiting for Godot" when he wrote "Boesman and Lena." But his characters were as near at hand as, say, Main Street is to the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Moses Gunn plays Boesman in Bill Bushnell's clean-edged revival of Fugard's 1969 play at LATC, and Madge Sinclair is Lena. They are African "coloureds"--meaning they have a freedom that blacks don't have: the freedom to be vagrants. They've been living in a shanty town, which the government bulldozed this morning. Now they are on the road again.
They've been together for a long time. They have even had a child together (stillborn). But it's a bitter union. He taunts and beats her, passing on the contempt he daily receives from the white man. She submits--not humbly. But in her world a woman alone is asking for trouble.
Tonight the pair will camp on the mud-flats, building a little hutch from auto-graveyard junk. (Timian Alsaker's set suggests a funereal version of "Cats.") Tomorrow will not be better. But Boesman has a couple of bottles of wine with him, which he may share with Lena, provided she begs amusingly enough. So forget tomorrow.
Like LATC's "Help Wanted," this is a play about the excluded, which is appropriate both to the season and the neighborhood. But where "Help Wanted" shows many faces, "Boesman and Lena" shows only three: his, hers and that of a vague old black tribesman who wanders into their camp, muttering words they can't understand (Shabaka). By the end of the evening we should know a good deal about Boesman and Lena, and we should feel that something has shifted between them--that she is no longer to be his donkey.
We do take the latter point in this well-spoken and well-acted production, but do we feel it? I personally didn't, for two reasons. The first regards Sinclair, whose Lena is alive to her toes from the minute she comes on. You can feel her pleasure when she takes the weight off her feet after their long day's tramp. You can feel her delight in making a little tea party for the old man around their miserable fire.
I've rarely seen an actress as thoroughly in-the-moment (one of the play's subthemes) as Sinclair, and that's not to imply that she's showing off at the expense of the character. She's magnificent. But if Lena is this clear and strong from the beginning, how can she grow? And can we really imagine her submitting to Boesman's fists?
Moses as Boesman is magnificent too, vocally. (It's time he got back to doing Shakespeare.) But his rafter-shaking rage and his cutting sarcasm tend to be without subtext. Boesman is, of course, an armored man, or he couldn't have survived his society. But we need to see more of what's behind that armor--of what made Lena take up with him in the first place. There's a difference between a rigid character and a rigid characterization.
The old man is there chiefly to listen to Lena (since Boesman is sick of her nonsense) and Shabaka makes his dozings-off so droll that it's a shock--the right kind--when he doesn't wake up. It's one of several moments where the play knows enough to stop talking (as usual with Fugard there's too much talk) and let an image do its work.
Another such moment is Sinclair's spur-of-the-moment dance to an absurd ditty (probably a radio commercial) about condensed milk. Here the round forestage, which had first suggested a shield, becomes, in effect, a drum, thrumming to Sinclair's bare feet. As with the best stage design, the effect happens in our heads.
Designer Alsaker's lighting (he also did poor Boesman and Lena's hand-me-down costumes) is harder to figure. He places his lights high and shines them down full and icy at moments of revelation--despite this being a nighttime play. In LATC's steeply banked Theatre 3, it's a bit like looking down at a surgical operation. It makes the actors easier to see, for sure, but it doesn't necessarily illuminate the characters. And it loses the mood of a dark river flat. This play needs support from the lighting booth, not commentary.
"BOESMAN AND LENA" Athol Fugard's play, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Director Bill Bushnell. Producer Diane White. Set, lighting and costume design Timian Alsaker. Sound design Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Jill Johnson. With Moses Gunn, Madge Sinclair, Shabaka. At 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, with 2 p.m. matinees Thursday, Saturday. Closes Feb. 2. Tickets $10-$20. 514 S. Spring St., (213) 627-5599.