Steppenwolf Theatre Company

South African playwright Athol Fugard’s dramas go far beyond diatribe against racial injustice, probing instead the soul sickness suffered by victim and victimizer alike in an immoral system. His 1992 one-act Playland is no exception. Firmly grounded in the politics of a postapartheid but still deeply divided South Africa, this poetic parable speaks to universal concerns about the future of the human race. A timely offering for the winter holidays, it eloquently if a bit self-consciously explores themes of repentance, redemption, and renewal; of faith and religion versus history and science; of the need to face and forgive–without forgetting–one’s own sins as well as the crimes of one’s oppressor.

Structured as an intertwined series of confessional monologues, Playland is flawed in many respects: its central conflict is contrived, its resolution predictable, and its dynamic ebb and flow too obviously calculated to feel spontaneous. But its rich, image-filled writing and its serious purpose reward attention. And Steppenwolf Theatre’s midwest-premiere staging, directed by Jonathan Wilson, emphasizes clarity of language and the intimate power of live acting–values sadly absent in recent Steppenwolf spectacles like A Clockwork Orange and Libra, and aspired to but barely achieved in the company’s shallow Talking Heads.

Set on New Year’s Eve in 1989–the last year of the disastrous South African Border War, a 23-year conflict between the fascist South African defense forces and the eventually victorious communist-backed South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO)–Playland concerns a fateful encounter between two men: Martinus, a black watchman at the tacky traveling carnival that gives the play its name, and Gideon, a cynical, vulgar, hard-drinking white ex-soldier who’s come to enjoy the “happiness machines” at the park. Though he periodically partakes of Playland’s rides and games, getting drunk on booze he swigs from a pocket flask, Gideon is insistently drawn to Martinus, a stoic, scowling man given to apocalyptic prophecies. The two men trade anecdotes, gradually stripping away their facades to reveal the dark secret that haunts them both: murder.

Martinus has killed the white man who raped Martinus’s woman; for that crime Martinus was sentenced to death and his girlfriend to prison by a judge who refused to believe their story. Reprieved from execution, Martinus is tormented by his biblically inspired conviction that he has sinned both in killing and in refusing to repent the act; unable to forgive the transgressor, he’s also unable to forgive himself. Where he has the blood of a single person on his hands, Gideon has the blood of a people: the black SWAPO soldiers he slaughtered and buried in a mass grave while a woman–perhaps the mother of one of the dead men–watched. Initially ready to defend his actions as part of the war against communist aggression, Gideon gradually reveals the torment his memories cause him–at first in offhand comments, like comparing pigeons killed by a wildcat to dead freedom fighters, and increasingly in the way he baits the introverted Martinus, urging the black man to fight or forgive him.

“It’s me and you tonight. The whole world is me and you,” Gideon tells Martinus toward the end of this 90-minute play. Indeed, the two men embody not merely South Africa as it enters an exciting but dangerous era of racial equality, but also a world with a history more of hatred and brutality than understanding and love. The divisions between Martinus and Gideon run deeper than black versus white. Martinus–played with rapturous, rigid ferocity by the forceful Lou Ferguson–is the play’s vessel of Old Testament morality, predicting an imminent judgment day and seeing “the fires of Eternal Damnation” in the intense red glow of the South African sunset (effectively suggested by lighting designer Howard Werner). The skeptical rationalist Gideon–in a skillfully paced, thoughtful performance by Gary Cole, a young turk of “rock and roll” off-Loop theater who’s matured remarkably well–dismisses Martinus’s vision as an optical illusion. His metaphors are more earthy and grimly specific, like comparing dead enemy soldiers to the cabbages he planted for his farmer father.

A third character, Barking Barney Barkhuizen (played by the never-seen Paul Sandberg), holds forth via PA, welcoming Gideon to the “fun and thrills” of Playland. An incongruous presence on the sprawling desert, the amusement park in Kevin Rigdon’s set design consists of a revolving tower surrounded by flashing lights and posters of 1930s movie characters (King Kong, Tarzan and Jane, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), its artificiality symbolizing the futility of Gideon’s denial of his demons. In two expressionistic mime episodes, the inebriated Gideon makes his way around Playland (Fugard himself is a recovering alcoholic), but he always returns to the shabby little campsite Martinus has set up on the fun-fair’s fringe.

For the fates of these two desperate souls are inextricably bound: by a playwright’s contrivance, yes, but also by a bleak, brutal history, not only South Africa but the world’s. Playland addresses this history with hope for the future,but it’s tinged with the anxious belief that reconciliation can come only from confrontation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.