By: Apr. 08, 2014
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Shadows hover, shadows hide, shadows disappear and in Athol Fugard's new play, shadows illuminate. The Shadow of The Hummingbird is making its world premiere at the Long Warf Theatre and stars the octogenarian playwright in the lead. If those announcements raise flags, don't worry. Fugard proves he is still a powerful playwright and actor with The Shadow of The Hummingbird.

The play packs a lot in its 60 minutes, and is performed without an interruption. It opens as Oupa (Fugard), wearing pajamas, vest and ski hat, is waiting for a visit from his grandson, Boba (played alternately by identical twins Aidan McMillan and Dermot McMillan). He is in his office in Southern California, which is charmingly cluttered with his notebooks, books, posters and miscellaneous things he accumulated over the years. "Where are my bloody eyes?" he asks in exasperation. His "spectacular spectacles" are in his pocket (of course!), but his real vision is through his grandson, who visits him frequently. More about this shortly. In the meanwhile, he searches for a specific passage in one his many notebooks, which are stashed here and there and are in various formats - spiral bound, marble composition books, leather diaries, anything. The introductory scene of this play is a long monologue, written by Paula Fourie from Fugard's own personal notebooks. Fugard is enthralling even while reading passages about his life and observations.

Fugard's play was inspired by his own grandson, Gavyn, and Boba is a delight from the moment he comes on stage. He loves his Oupa. He respects him. He admires him. He and his Oupa slay dragons together. Oupa tries to teach him about "the rivers of light" and the wisdom of "the big minds of the world" - poets and philosophers such as William Blake and Plato. Oupa's relationship with Boba's father is tense and unpleasant. His son considers him "an arrogant, conceited old idiot" and he doesn't want Boba to see him. Oupa considers his son one of G-d's dirty tricks to become his heir. He is delighted at replicating Socrates' charge of "corrupting the youth" by teaching his grandson to ask questions, to think for himself and to use his imagination.

As fans of Fugard know, the trajectory of his plays went from making political statements against apartheid in his native South Africa to being more personal. No doubt a lot of the material is autobiographical, but Fugard goes beyond being a raconteur. Fugard is still lithe and very expressive. Even listening to him read his list of bird sightings is enthralling. Aidan McMillan was Boba on the night I saw the show and he played the character with sincerity, innocence and naturalness. The sound design by John Gromada and lighting design complemented Eugene Lee's inviting set.

The play can stand tall on its own with other actors. (Roy Dotrice and Frank Langella come to mind as Oupa, and I think Jonah Verdon would be perfect as Boba.) Fugard's metaphors of trying to catch the elusive, tiny fluttering bird and the scenario of a being chained in a cave, seeing only shadows on the wall are unforgettable. Of course, hummingbirds are among the only group of birds that go backwards, and that is what Oupa is doing as he tries to reconcile himself with his mortality while yearning for the magic and mystery of youth.

The Shadow of The Hummingbird runs at the Long Wharf Stage II in New Haven through April 27. For tickets, call 203-787-4282 or visit April is a busy month, but don't let this opportunity go by.