Hello and Goodbye | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Hello and Goodbye 

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Stark Raving Ensemble

at Cafe Voltaire

You have to give Stark Raving Ensemble credit for staging one of the bleakest plays imaginable during the fluffy summer months. No one should go to an Athol Fugard play expecting a laugh riot, but even by his standards this is gut-wrenching stuff. Masterful in its command of language, yet quite predictable in the downward spiral of its plot, Hello and Goodbye begins in desperation, proceeds with a slight hope, and concludes in utter despair.

Johnnie is an obsessive-compulsive barely clinging to his sanity. Once he dreamed of working for the railroads, but he gave up that idea to nurse his invalid father. He spends his days in endless rituals, preparing medications and occupying his mind with wordplay and number games.

His sister Hester returns home after 15 years to claim her share of her father's disability compensation, which could rescue her from the life of poverty and prostitution she's been leading. Johnnie is the picture of denial and Hester drips with bitterness as they discuss their miserable childhood and go through their parents' belongings, searching for the money we know they will never find.

Hester dares Johnnie to admit his hatred for his father. Johnnie dares her to kill herself, hoping that she will leave him alone in his world. At the end we learn that their mother and father have been dead for some time now and that there is no inheritance. Johnnie and Hester are orphans, destined to live out the wretched lives of their parents. Hester will continue to be used and abused by men, just as she says her mother was abused by her father. And Johnnie will become an invalid like his dad; as the lights fade, he's walking with his father's crutches.

Like the hopeless people of their hometown--Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1965--Johnnie and Hester will continue to live out the same terrible story that was lived out by their ancestors. Written about one of the most dismal periods of South Africa's dismal history, Fugard's gloomy play makes what's going to happen obvious: you know that there's no way out and that there will be no happy ending. This makes the play almost painful to watch, but that's probably the point.

For the most part Michael J. Stewart directs his actors flawlessly. Tom Drummer's nervous, jumpy, chattering Johnnie is one of the best performances I've seen this season. Jennifer Halliday's Hester is very good as well, capturing both the venomous bitterness and the tragic hopelessness of her character. Ann Wakefield, the play's dialect coach, has also done a superb job; both actors are thoroughly understandable while never dropping their accents.

The play falters only toward the end, during a couple of very poorly choreographed sequences of violence. In a space as intimate as Cafe Voltaire's, Halliday's wildly flailing fists pummeling Drummer's body look less convincing than most episodes of championship wrestling. Otherwise this is an excellent production.


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