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Review

Long Wharf's 'Shadow of the Hummingbird' Fitting Tribute To Wisdom

Athol Fugard Takes To The Stage In Premiere At Long Wharf Theatre

By FRANK RIZZO, frizzo@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

April 10, 2014

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The show: Athol Fugard's "The Shadow of the Hummingbird" at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II in New Haven.

What makes it special?: It marks Fugard's return to the stage as an actor for the first time in 15 years in this world premiere of his latest work.

First impressions: "The old and infirm haven't lost their sight," says the ailing grandfather in this lovely and loving cameo of a play. "They have merely turned their gaze inward."

In this two-character work, Fugard as dramatist and protagonist looks deep within — and back through time — with a sense of curiosity, loss and yearning. This short-but-significant stage parable is full of light — and shadows, in every sense of the word — as the old man struggles to make a special connection with his 10-year-old grandson about lost innocence and wonder. But another connection is made, too, with the audience, which here witnesses a master artist giving an intimate and very personal life lesson, gently guided by director Gordon Edelstein.

What's it about?: A transplanted South African writer living in Southern California enters his study, agitated, in search of a piece of writing from long ago from one of his many journals that he has kept at hand over a 50-plus year career. In his search, we get a glimpse of the man over the decades — as well as his humor, interests, conflicts and humanity.

But something is clearly haunting him, shadowing him, if you will, as his young grandson arrives for a visit.

The rest of the play is the grandfather's sometimes playful, sometimes frustrating attempt to re-capture the boy's — and his own — sense of imagination about the mysteries of the world. The boy tries to understand but fails to grasp the philosophical essence of the old man's great lesson plan. The grandfather becomes angry at the child. But they reconcile. The two hug. The boy leaves. Then returns to eventually understand what his grandfather was talking about.

And that's it?: Not all plays soar with the boldness of an eagle. Some are as small and delicate as, well, a hummingbird, whose gifts are barely perceptible to the human eye. The play is like that, too: a series of grace notes that add up a sort of philosophical discussion about life, time and imagination. (Even Socrates, Plato and Jesus indirectly get into this chat room.) But it is mostly this elder sage's late-in-life reclamation of self that resonates. But because the boy is only 10 and a passive participant in the discussion, the talk is more of an unchallenged soliloquy, and sometimes comes across as facile.

What engages us is the commitment of the performance (and indeed, the life) of the author and actor. Fugard is a beguiling marvel, charming the audience at first and then drawing us deeper into his troubled world. Aiden McMillan does a solid job as the sweet but at first uncomprehending grandson. (He alternates in the role with his twin brother Dermot.)

So is the play about Fugard? No— but kind of. Clearly some of the details parallel the writer's personal story — and the writing excerpts he comes across in the play's prologue are indeed from his unpublished journals. The prologue — written by Fugard's partner Paula Fourie — is an important part of the play because it allows the audience to spend time understanding and enjoying the company of the character of the grandfather before the boy arrives. Clearly the New Haven audience welcomes it, giving Fugard the first warm entrance applause I've seen on a Connecticut stage in some time. (We can talk about the pros and cons of entrance applause another time.)

Who will like it?: Fans of the playwright, grandparents, homeschoolers.

Who won't?: Those looking for works that are more eagle-like, less shadowy.

For the kids?: Some may appreciate the wisdom of the play and the intergenerational connection.

Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Grandfathers know best, though better late than never.

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: At first I thought how unusual it was to have two plays back-to-back at Long Wharf Theatre dealing the relationships of Eighty-something grandparents and their grandchildren. ("4000 Miles" preceded "Hummingbird" at the theater.) Then I began to think of other recent stage shows that offered the opportunity for audiences to see some of the best stage performances around by extraordinary octogenarian actors: Estelle Parsons, James Earl Jones, Hal Holbrook, Angela Lansbury and Cicely Tyson, Rosemary Harris, to name just a few. Now add Athol Fugard to that list.

The basics: The play continues through April 27 at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. The show is 60 minutes with no intermission. Information at www.longwharf.org and 203-787-4282.