Athol Fugard is justly renowned for plays like The Road to Mecca and Playland that helped dismantle his native South Africa's system of apartheid. A Place With the Pigs, a tragicomedy set in the former Soviet Union, seems a departure. But this tightly focused production, beautifully acted and directed at Aurora Theatre Company, explores the playwright's recurring themes of courage, bondage and what it means to be human. Subtitled A Personal Parable — as though Fugard felt a need to explain his change of venue — Pigs recounts 30 years of one couple's hell.
Pavel (Soren Oliver), a deserter from the Soviet army, has been hiding in his own pigsty, attended and aided by Praskovya (Stephanie Hunt), his dutiful wife. The play is a study of entropy in four scenes, an extended conversation between traditionally warring elements: the artist versus the pragmatist; the communist versus the religious traditionalist; the coward versus the hero.
Pavel is the poet, the tragic coward paralyzed by fear, whose inspiration comes not from his long-suffering wife but from a pair of slippers his mother embroidered for him. Praskovya is the practical farm woman who frequently prefaces her remarks, “In case you're interested in the truth ….” The play follows Pavel's struggle to act with courage and dignity, to leave the foul den he shares with swine and admit before his countrymen that he is not the late lamented war hero, but rather a homesick man who could not live another winter away from his cozy hearth, loving wife and, oh yes, those slippers.
This is a play packed with ideas, but its dramatic line describes what happens when thought is unaccompanied by action. As directed by Tom Ross, Pigs shares Pavel's misery as well as his digs: Every surface in Richard Olmstead's realistic dirt-lined set is scored with the counted days, weeks, years. Soren Oliver's portrayal is deeply comic; but as pitifully amusing as Pavel's obsessions are, Oliver never loses touch with the inner man. Stephanie Hunt is his perfect foil, endowing Praskovya with an endearingly buoyant optimism that makes her utter disregard for the agonies of the soul both funny and refreshing.
Ross has paced the play steadily, so that through this study of wheel-spinning, Fugard's “personal parable” continues to build and grow.
Berkeley Rep's doggedly sincere A Moon for the Misbegotten — which could have been subtitled, “a place with the pigs” — creeps forward at an agonizingly slow pace.
Meet the Hogans — a friendly, rambunctious lot, whose patriarch regularly threatens and abuses his adult children until he passes out from too much whiskey. Come on down to the farm where father and daughter cheerfully create and embellish a myth of the daughter's promiscuity and where, last but certainly not least, a rich man comes calling. That the visitor is their landlord and also a drunk is critical; this is a play that keeps its plot elements swirling in a maelstrom of alcohol.
Josie Hogan (Michelle Morain), the large and lusty-tongued daughter of a Connecticut pig farmer, deals with the old man's drunkenness and foul mouth by affectionately fighting fire with fire. She recognizes, however, that life on a tenant farm ain't for everyone, and helps her brother Mike (Andrew Hurteau) escape. Left alone with her father, Phil (Jonathan McMurtry), Josie sets her sights on the farm's rich new owner, Jim Tyrone (Charles Dean). Jim doesn't think much of farm life, either; he is looking to sell and to return to the bright lights of Broadway. The Hogans have made an offer, but fear that Jim will cut a bigger, better deal with the rich man whose property is next door. So they concoct a scheme to trap Jim into marrying Josie.
Ever the amiable souse, Jim makes a date to come courting. But he is two hours late; and before he makes his entrance, Josie's hopes are dashed by Phil, who staggers home with a tale of Jim's betrayal. By the time Jim arrives, Josie is bent on revenge. It takes her awhile to figure out she's been bamboozled by dear old dad and even longer to attend to Jim's real need, which is confessional rather than sexual. Gulping down bourbon as fast as Josie can pour it, he finally unloads a tale of self-loathing and remorse. In the morning he leaves, having been absolved.
A Moon for the Misbegotten is O'Neill's sentimental and angst-ridden attempt to memorialize his brother Jamie, whose early death from alcoholism sent the playwright into a paroxysm of despair and guilt. Moon seems to be O'Neill's attempt to understand his brother's drinking as well as to forgive it. As the playwright himself was a prodigious tippler, there is a decided lack of, shall we say, clear-headedness to his approach. The play turns into a kind of schizoid wrestling match, in which the seasoned dramatist is taken to the mat by the tortured brother. The ending imposes a kinder, gentler resolution than happened in real life, but the contest between O'Neill the playwright and O'Neill the sibling is a draw.
As Jim Tyrone, Charles Dean is remote and bland until he finally drops his guard with Josie. In his pinstripe suit (costumes by Lydia Tanji) he bears an unfortunate resemblance to Pete Wilson and exudes about as much charisma. His alcoholic ravings are more reminiscent of multiple-personality disorder, but that's probably not the actor's fault; O'Neill was interested in giving voice to the mind's demons.
As Josie, Michelle Morain is warm and robust. With her wide, generous smile she seems to embrace the world in all its drunken imperfection. While she is undeniably appealing, this interpretation contributes to an overjovial, Beverly Hillbillies mood — kind of, “Those darn drunks, you gotta love 'em.” We don't really appreciate Josie's desperation or her very real tragedy.
Jonathan McMurtry's Phil is a charming old scene stealer who injects much-needed life into the overlong introductory scenes. But, again, he's so playful and mischievous that there's no conflict between father and daughter, no payoff when the confrontation occurs.
Director Michael Bloom seems to want both a stark, unrelenting expressionism (hence Barbara Mesney's grim set) and a warm, fuzzy emotional catharsis. He ends up with a play that keeps our interest only as it relates to the entire O'Neill canon. Otherwise, it seems as misbegotten as the folks for whom its moon shines.
A Place With the Pigs continues through May 7 at Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley; call (510) 843-4822. A Moon for the Misbegotten runs through May 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre; call (510) 845-4700.