Only Abasiama (Nancy Moricette) hears the steady booming sound that rises up from her basement. It’s as insistent as Edgar Allen Poe’s tell-tale heart. And it corresponds with her various moods. When Abasiama is sprawled out on her couch, hiding her depression under a blanket, she hears a faint, otherworldly tapping. She can drown it out with the gospel music she keeps playing 24/7. But when she’s agitated or afraid, caught up in past memories, the noise gradually increases in strength like the footsteps of an approaching giant. That violent sound is the ghost of her second husband Disciple Ufot.
In Old Age is one in a cycle of Ufot family plays by Mfoniso Udofia (at the Magic Theatre through April 21). When Loretta Greco, the Magic’s artistic director, introduced the play on opening night, she asked the audience if they had seen the other plays that have been produced in the Bay Area: Sojourners, runboyrun and Her Portmanteau. At least half of the audience raised their hands. For those of us who had seen them, we knew who was haunting Abasiama and the reasons why. For those who didn’t know a thing about the Ufot family, Udofia is deliberately vague. Is Abasiama shouting at the floorboards because she’s gone mad from hearing voices? Or is someone actually living downstairs or locked in a room?
The playwright decided not to summarize her protagonist’s history here for the uninitiated. Alongside the two previous Magic productions, Sojourners and runboyrun, Udofia instead tries to enhance the unspoken mystery that’s central to the origin story of the Ufot family. She’s in the process of creating the mythology that surrounds this extended Nigerian-American clan. From Sojourners we learn that Abasiama and her first husband Ukpong emigrated to the United States after the Nigerian Civil War in the 1970s. From runboyrun we learn how that war damaged and altered Disciple’s psyche. She provides a rounded picture of Disciple as a young man, and as an older one whose only legacy to his wife and children is trauma.
Since Udofia omits these crucial details from In Old Age, Abasiama appears to be howling for the sake of howling into an unresponsive storm. As a theatrical event, the Magic’s set and lighting designs meet Udofia’s imagination so that the story lands inside a fabled universe. A row of skeletal trees line the back of the stage. Leafless and forlorn, they enhance her inner turmoil. There are no overt references to Abasiama as a Sycorax-like figure — Caliban’s sorceress-mother in Shakespeare’s The Tempest — but she later exhibits a witch’s power that’s activated from her isolation and her frustrated inability to exorcise her husband’s abusive spirit.
When Azell (Steven Anthony Jones) knocks on her door one morning, he’s the catalyst who literally wakes her up and brings her back to the real world. Unbeknownst to her, one of Abasiama’s daughters has hired him to fix the floorboards in her decaying house. Azell is a great role for Jones. He conveys the man’s personality with flashes of wit and rage and every emotion in between. Like Abasiama, Udofia provides him with a lifetime’s worth of his own demons. Inside this ruined house, a metaphor for the respective tragedies they’ve both experienced, the playwright moves them toward each other. She wants them to share a mutually assured catharsis.
Abasiama is so entrenched in her ways, and lost in her memories, that she and Azell can only get to know each other by bickering. This spark between them foreshadows, not a romance, but a kind of love. The difference being that they each need someone to care for. At one point, an angry Azell offers his statement of purpose, or his life’s great wish, to find, “a measure of ease.” When they first interact, it’s impossible to believe that they’d find that with each other. But Abasiama reaches the core of his being by repeatedly asking him, “What kind of a man are you?” It’s the confrontation she could never have had with Disciple when he was alive.
Udofia lands In Old Age far away from the mode of realism that she established in Her Portmanteau (which closed at A.C.T. at the end of March). In that play, Disciple is still alive and hounding his wife on the phone. That Abasiama endures a terrible moment of grief but she’s still connected to her children and to the place she’s made for herself in America. In this play, her sadness has swallowed her whole. After two disastrous marriages, she’s taking the measure of a man to find her own measure of ease.
In Old Age, through April 21, at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Boulevard, Building D, 415-441-8822, or magictheatre.org.