People Are Living There
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
June 14, 2005
People Are Living There is one of only two plays by seminal South African playwright Athol Fugard that is not about apartheid or the black community and is instead about poor white folk living in a 1950s Johannesburg tenement. The fact that this play is not about apartheid opens the door to its universality. The play’s director, a longtime collaborator of Fugard’s named Suzanne Shepherd, recognized this fact and has moved the location to Elizabeth, New Jersey.
I think the new location and subsequent rewrites work well. Still I feel compelled to mention that when I think of South Africa I think of the struggles of the black majority against the oppressive white minority. I never really considered that there are whites struggling to make ends meet in South Africa. So the fact that this play is originally about poor whites in South Africa makes it much more unusual than a play about poor whites in New Jersey. That said, the move to Jersey does not detract from the dramatic impact of the play but it doesn’t add to it either. It is merely a lateral move. So the question is… why move it?
People Are Living There revolves around Milly, the landlady of a rundown bordering house, who has recently been cast aside by her long-term lover and is obsessed with revenge. She finds out that her ex-lover is going out on a date and decides to throw a birthday party for herself just to spite him. But this just doesn’t work out because her party guests/lodgers Don and Shorty are victims of their own ineptitude. Don is a cynical intellectual who can only validate himself by quoting other people’s wisdom and can’t seem to do anything to become the intellectual giant he wants to be. Shorty is a gentle simpleton who is training to be a boxer yet can’t seem to stand up to his wife Sissy or anyone else for that matter. Milly desperately wants there to a raging party going on, complete with roaring laughter and cheap paper party hats, when her ex-lover returns but instead she begins to reflect on her fifty years of life and truths about her become apparent.
Milly realizes that she has transformed into someone she doesn’t even recognize. Where she once believed that she’d always have happiness, now she sees that happiness has eluded her and she’s no longer the person she once was. Fugard provides us with a wonderful symbol for this in the form of silkworms that Shorty has been nurturing that at the end of the play transform into moths. Don, on the other hand, is terrified of being happy. He even refuses to admit that he can enjoy a singalong even though we see him tapping his toe. Shorty is in search of happiness in all the wrong places—the boxing ring, his mean-spirited wife, and friends who don’t respect him—but he’s too dim to realize it. The one thing that binds these characters together is their fear of being alone.
There is a bleak, melancholy shadow over everything and Fugard gives us few things to laugh at. (Though not necessarily from lack of trying) I have to admit that I began to lose interest in the first half of the play because it is light on plot and heavy on banter. However, things really pick up and become interesting theatre when the party begins. There is about ten minutes of fantastic theatre when all talking ceases and we only hear (and see) the characters attacking the party food. This scene had the most impact on me. Fugard shows us throughout the play what happens to us when we sit around and wait for life to come to us instead of attacking it. So I saw this scene as a futile attempt at attacking life and the one moment when the characters break out of their shells. This is very refreshing, but then immediately afterward Fugard falls back on dramatic speeches to reveal his characters' innermost feelings.
O’Mara Leary as Milly wraps her entire being around her speeches and overall delivers a truly memorable performance. Larry Silverberg is as natural as can be in the role of Don, the brooding intellectual. Ben Rauch turns out an amazing performance as Shorty. He is so endearing that I almost began to care more about what happens to him than the main character. Emma Myles is good as Shorty’s bitchy wife Sissy, who only appears at the very beginning and very end of the play.
Suzanne Shepherd directs with a delicate touch and her attention to detail is exquisite. Roger Mooney’s naturalistic set design also shows wonderful detail and Brenna McGuire bolsters Mooney’s concept with her unaffected costumes and props.
It is a real treat to see this rarely-performed Fugard play. Regardless of where it is set it rings true. You should not miss this opportunity to see it.