'The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Leon Addison Brown and Caleb McLaughlin in 'The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek'
Although it states its themes a little baldly, this deeply affecting play represents another highlight in Fugard's distinguished career

Signature Theatre presents the world premiere of this latest work by esteemed South African playwright Athol Fugard, author of 'The Road to Mecca' and 'Master Harold...and the Boys.'

In a recent interview, Athol Fugard described himself as an "outsider artist," defining the term as someone who has "created something significant or beautiful with no formal training in any artistic discipline." Whether that truly applies to the author of such modern classics as Blood Knot, The Road to Mecca and Master Harold…and the Boys, among many others, is debatable. But there's no denying that this still vital 82-year-old South African playwright feels an affinity for such figures that is on ample display in his affecting new work, being given its world premiere by off-Broadway's Signature Theatre. Featuring many of the themes familiar from his past plays, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek is an intimate theatrical gem.

The first half of the brief play, loosely inspired by the life of South African outsider artist Nukain Mabusa, is set in in 1981 in Mpumalanga Province. We are introduced to the elderly Nukain (Leon Addison Brown), who works as a laborer for an Afrikaner farmer couple, and Bokkie (Caleb McLaughlin), the young boy who serves as his companion and aide.  

Nukain has spent much of his free time painting the rocks of Revolver Creek in bright colors, making them resemble flowers — 105 of them, according to Bokkie's count. Now nearing the end of his life, he has set his sights on a mammoth rock on which he intends to paint his final work: not another flower, but rather a representation of himself and his struggles.

Read More 'Hamilton,' 'Between Riverside and Crazy' Continue Winning Streak at Lortel Awards

He begins by painting a large set of eyes — "Now he can see me," he gleefully tells his young acolyte — and proceeds to create a massive stick-figure self-portrait walking on a road, a vibrant rainbow looming over him, symbolizing a life whose spirit was undimmed by the horrors of apartheid.

His artistic triumph is rendered sadly short-lived by the arrival of Elmarie (Bianca Amato), the Afrikaner wife, who has come to bring them some leftover food. Disdainful of Nukain's atypical new creation, she orders him to wash it off and paint another flower instead. When Bokkie vehemently protests — "It is his story…Tata's story," he pleads — she becomes incensed at his insubordination, telling Nukain to use his belt and "give him a lesson." The dejected artist, who doesn't even own a belt, wearily explains to the young boy that if he doesn't comply he'll lose his job.

Act II, taking place 22 years later, depicts the return to the rock of Bokkie, now a self-assured, well-dressed thirtysomething going by the proper name of Jonathan (Sahr Ngaujah, who starred on Broadway in Fela!). His arrival is not warmly greeted by an unrecognizing Elmarie, who trains a gun at him; she's deeply traumatized by the recent violence directed by blacks against her fellow Afrikaners. We eventually learn that Nukain died just a few days after finishing his final work, and that Jonathan has come to restore the painting, which by now has faded under the elements.

Read More 'Between Riverside and Crazy,' 'Hamilton' Take New York Drama Critics' Circle Honors

It's here that the play becomes a bit stilted and didactic, with Jonathan and Elmarie becoming engaged in a lengthy debate in which the post-apartheid themes are stated far too explicitly. Lurching into unconvincing melodrama — at one point Elmarie angrily threatens to shoot the rock, with Jonathan propelling himself into the line of fire — it loses some of its elegantly simple power.

But it's deeply moving nonetheless, with Fugard, who also directed, eliciting superb performances from his ensemble, especially Brown, who conveys Nukain's mixture of proud dignity and helpless subjugation with haunting poignancy. The production has its flaws — the staging is too leisurely, and not all of the dialogue rings true. But the work, which Fugard has indicated may be his last, is a worthy addition to his distinguished canon.  

Cast: Caleb McLaughlin, Leon Addison Brown, Bianca Amato, Sahr Ngaujah
Playwright-director: Athol Fugard
Set designer: Christopher H. Barreca
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge
Sound designer: Stowe Nelson
Presented by Signature Theatre