Athol Fugard has described his 1961 drama Blood Knot as ”the work in which I found my voice.” But it’s not necessarily the 79-year-old playwright’s dialogue that hits us so hard in the Signature Theatre Company’s well-wrought revival, which runs through March 11 as the inaugural production of the company’s airy new Frank Gehry-designed Signature Center. (Opening next: Katori Hall’s Hurt Village, followed by Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque.)
What truly hurts and haunts are the often-wordless actions of two newly reunited South African brothers, dark-skinned Zachariah (Colman Domingo) and light-skinned Morris (Scott Shepherd), reluctant roommates in a one-room patchwork shack on the shabby outskirts of Port Elizabeth. Morris methodically prepares a warm saltwater bath for Zach’s calloused feet. Zach gazes longingly, and laughingly, at a snapshot of his pen pal, Ethel, who’s 18 years old, ”well developed,” and white — a potentially dangerous, and definitely illegal, dalliance. Morris learns to ”walk properly” — i.e., like a white man — in order to entertain Ethel. Zach shuffles, scrapes, and bows to Morrie. Even the utterance of the N-word cuts less deep than a blood relative armed with an umbrella and a light-skinned superiority complex.
As the siblings trapped in a Beckett-like vicious circle — they can’t go on, they’ll go on — Domingo and Shepherd display a very believable adult brotherly bond. It’s an almost-uncomfortable familiarity tempered with moments of extreme distrust. Domingo is surprisingly excellent; in shows like Passing Strange and The Scottsboro Boys, for which he received a Tony nomination, he tended to be heavy on the ham. Here, however, he finds ways to be colorful and comic — Zach gets nearly all the laugh lines — without laying it on too thick. But Shepherd, who was so dynamic in the Elevator Repair Service’s eight-hour Gatz, almost completely fades into the background (as does his accent). I do wish Fugard, who also directs this production, would do some cutting with revivals of his earlier work. Like The Road to Mecca, now on Broadway, Blood Knot feels overwritten and repetitive. That’s something to hope for with his next two Signature productions: a revival of My Children! My Africa! in May and a New York premiere of The Train Driver in August. B
(Tickets: SignatureTheatre.org or 212-244-7529)