You have to go back to the days when the agonies of the Vietnam War were tearing up the American stage to get an idea of the visceral power of Athol Fugard’s “Playland” at South Coast Repertory.
And even then, the most-passionate anti-war plays, from David Rabe’s macabre “Sticks and Bones” to John DiFusco’s nightmarish “Tracers,” never had the eloquent grit of Fugard’s up-to-the-minute bulletin on the state of his nation’s divided soul.
Moreover, the stunning ensemble performance of Richard Doyle and Kene Holliday in SCR’s Second Stage revival of “Playland” is a theatrical experience not to be missed--both for its staggering physical intensity and its raw poetic grace.
With greater currency than ever, this two-character drama addresses the question of what comes next in a South African society ruled for so long by white racists now that apartheid is being dismantled and the prospect of black majority rule is edging into view.
Doyle plays Gideon le Roux, a white army veteran whose recent re-entry into civilian life is haunted by grisly memories of combat (especially the atrocities he committed) during South Africa’s losing Border War against the freedom fighters of now-independent Namibia.
Holliday plays Martinus Zoeloe, the black night watchman of an itinerant carnival camped near a small town in the Karoo, South Africa’s arid tableland, where Gideon has come to celebrate New Year’s Eve, 1989.
Martinus also turns out to be haunted by homicidal memories, though from a private war he does not regret fighting. A fuming, Bible-quoting believer in the hellfire of eternal damnation, he wants no part of Gideon or the honky-tonk celebration on the midway hosted by the disembodied voice of “Barking Barney,” the carnival boss.
But both men--each embittered, burdened by guilt and filled with barely suppressed rage--inevitably face off on the dilapidated patch of dirt where the shabbily dressed Martinus cooks his supper in a trash can and the nattily attired Gideon swigs on whiskey, all against a backdrop of latticework, scaffolding and lights suggesting the third-rate carnival rides beyond.
When “Playland” made its U.S. debut under Fugard’s direction in a 1992 La Jolla Playhouse production, the critical reception was decidedly mixed.
The Times’ Sylvie Drake objected to the predictable setup of the confrontation (“classically obvious”) and had even deeper reservations about the ending (“stubbornly counterfeit”).
Those problems remain, including two interludes in the action she didn’t mention that bring the forward motion of this one-act, 95-minute drama to momentary halts. (Gideon wanders offstage to the midway not once but twice, while a sound collage of Barking Barney doing his version of an American-style DJ entertains us with rock ‘n’ roll oldies.)
But in SCR’s revival, which opened Friday, the furious sweep of the performance takes us on an unforgettable roller coaster that ranks with some of the best rides that director Martin Benson has ever offered.
From the moment Holliday appears as Martinus, spewing curses at the midway crew and the offstage revelers, we are in the presence of an actor capable of powerful moods and mysterious undercurrents.
Whether he sits alone in sullen dignity, his arms folded across his chest and his eyes staring into the dark, or picks up his fighting stick and suddenly moves like a warrior, Holliday registers the stoical self-possession of a man who has faced the worst and taken up a solitary vigil.
Doyle, on the other hand, evokes a man trying to cover up his desperation and defeat. His bottom lip trembles, betraying nerves. His eyebrow twitches. He never stops moving, never sits. As the more volatile of the two characters, Doyle gives a mercurial performance that can’t be praised enough.
His range alone is astonishing. Doyle can exude the abysmal cynicism of a battle-scarred killer and still transform himself into a picture of youthful innocence without ever betraying the telltale signs of “acting.”
Meanwhile, even if the structure of this ironically titled play seems forced and the characters meant as symbols of South African society, Martinus and Gideon are written with such fluency that they never have to strain for belief as full-blooded people.
“Playland” may not offer the emotional upheaval of its immediate predecessor “My Children! My Africa!,” a once-in-a-lifetime drama, but Fugard’s artistic mastery is evident again and well worth the price of admission.
* “Playland,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Feb. 27. $23-$33. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (no intermission).
Richard Doyle: Gideon le Roux
Kene Holliday: Martinus Zoeloe
Darryl Flynn: offstage voice (“Barking Barney”)
A South Coast Repertory production of an Athol Fugard play.. Directed by Martin Benson. Scenic designer: Robert Brill. Costume designer: Julie Keen. Lighting designer: Paulie Jenkins. Sound designer: David Budries. Dialect coach: Dudley Knight. Production manager: Michael Mora. Stage manager: Randall K. Lum.