Athol Fugard’s 1965 scripts Hello and Goodbye largely fails as drama, but it contains two excellent roles for actors — and the performers who are taking on those parts in this production are really, really good.
Set in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Hello and Goodbye is about two siblings from an impoverished white family. When we meet Johnnie, he’s alone in the house, clinging to his sanity after the death of his father. When his sister Hester arrives after a 15-year absence, Johnnie doesn’t recognize her, but she soon convinces him of her identity. Hester, who loathed her father with a passion, has been working as a street prostitute in Johannesburg.
Presumably because he fears Hester might be there to claim her share of a miniscule inheritance, Johnnie pretends that Daddy is still alive in the next room.
Hester falls for this ruse and that’s the first problem: it’s not credible and plot development on this front takes forever to arrive. There are other tedious narrative delays, including the revelation of what exactly Hester is after, and the “surprise” of what really happened to Johnnie’s desire to work on the railroad. On top of that, there are creaky contrivances: Hester and Johnnie go through boxes of memorabilia, for instance, so that the playwright can anchor his evocation of their shared history by referring to concrete objects.
There are a couple of poetic notes that hint at Fugard’s true power, which is more fully revealed in plays such as Blood Knot and Boesman and Lena: Johnnie’s growing fondness for his one-legged father’s crutches slides from being playful to being creepy, for example. And Fugard intersperses dialogue-driven scenes with monologues that sometimes sound like spoken arias.
Mostly, though, the script is dull — which makes it all the more noticeable that, under Bo Petersen’s direction, actors Riaan Smit (Johnnie) and Deborah Vieyra (Hester) are doing such good work within it.
Smit’s Johnnie feels like a child who is collapsing mentally under the weight of an adult world: that innocence is expressed in part through remarkable physical responsiveness. And Vieyra subtly captures Hester’s woundedness and wariness. Vieyra never overplays Hester’s moments; she just lives them. As a result, a simple question like “Have I changed much?” comes freighted with meaning. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen either of these performers before, which makes it even more exciting that they’re doing such consistently impressive work here.
Lighting designer Keagan Elrick leans into the impressionistic aspect of Fugard’s script, mixing moody passages of dappled light with hotter specials for some of the more intense monologues.
I won’t rush to see another production of Hello and Goodbye. But I will be interested to see what the artists from this company get up to next.
HELLO AND GOODBYE By Athol Fugard. Directed by Bo Petersen.Presented by A Room Somewhere. At The Nest (formerly Studio 1398) on Thursday, June 27. Continues until July 6.Tickets.
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