Splitting Heirs

ae hg1Toxic family ties explored in JTC’s engrossing ‘Hello & Goodbye’

Two of Santa Cruz’s best known and most dependable actors receive a gift of a play in the Jewel Theatre Company’s new production of Athol Fugard’s “Hello & Goodbye”—a gift that keeps on giving to local audiences in this intense evening of dramatic theater. Played with both terrific brio and aching subtlety by Mike Ryan and Julie James, and directed by Bay Area theater veteran Jessica Heidt, Fugard’s two-character drama emerges as an incisive, microcosmic look at family, class, and cultural dysfunction in South Africa of the recent past.

The story is set in 1965, the year in which the play was written: Nelson Mandela had just been sent to prison, apartheid policies were in full flower, and the white Afrikaner minority was struggling to maintain its political control over an increasingly rebellious population. But the viewer doesn’t have to know anything about South African history or politics to be moved by the core tale of fractured family dynamics as a pair of adult siblings confront each other, themselves, and the twisted legacy inherited from their parents.

Johnny (Ryan) is a timid, middle-aged man who has lived his entire life in the same shabby Port Elizabeth house with his domineering father. He’s a man of few needs and even fewer desires; a beer and a lemon cream biscuit are the most exotic, illicit luxuries he can imagine. Ryan introduces the character in a virtuoso opening monologue that begins with a game of counting out the seconds of a life spent in “waiting,” and escalates into a Hamlet-like consideration of whether he’s going mad. The audience must pay attention to realize that the unwieldy object Johnny describes as recently carried out of the house by three men, “Finally, just a thing,” was the body of his deceased dad.

ae hg2Although uncertain how to proceed on his own, Johnny takes no comfort from the sudden reappearance of his brash and angry prodigal sister, Hester (James). Having run away years ago to “JoBurg,” and supported herself the way women usually do in big cities without money or skills, Hester has only come back because she wants something, Johnny is convinced, and so he refuses to tell her their father is gone, maintaining the fantasy that the old man is still sleeping in a back bedroom.

Hester is indeed searching for something, the financial  “compensation” their father sought for years after he was crippled in a mining accident. As the siblings search through boxes of family memorabilia, unpacking the dress of their beloved mother (who died “frightened” and too young), their father’s crutches, a document revealing the truth of why Johnny never left, and a lifetime of resentment, it becomes clear that Hester is searching for a “compensation” of her own—”just one thing that ever made me happy.” In the long shadow cast by the racist, controlling, absent father as the play hurtles toward its effective conclusion, we see how toxic traditions and attitudes continue to cripple succeeding generations.

Ryan is that rare actor who can play every tragic note of Johnny’s character (“I don’t love, I don’t hate, I play it safe”), yet still find grace moments of innocence, comedy, and warmth. James is excellent too, modulating Hester’s aggressive unhappiness with glimmers of unexpected tenderness. (And it’s no mean feat that both players maintain convincing Afrikaner accents throughout.) The drab, lived-in clutter of Ron Gasparinetti’s single set, Erik Gandolfi’s moody sound design (a rattling train to signal Johnny’s flirtations with madness; soft humming during reveries of their mother), and Heidt’s bold direction all contribute to this engrossing, emotional production. Photos: Steve DiBartolomeo

“Hello & Goodbye” runs Thursdays-Sundays, now though March 18, at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. For tickets and more information, call 425-7506, or visit JewelTheatre.net.

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