Wednesday, November 25, 2020


Peter Rogan, Leonard Frey, Estelle Parsons.

PEOPLE ARE LIVING THERE [Drama/Friendship/South African] A: Athol Fugard; D: John Berry; S: Douglas W. Schmidt; C: Jeanne Button; L: John Gleason; P: Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center; T: Forum Theatre (OB); 11/18/71-12/4/71 (20)

Leonard Frey, Estelle Parsons.

This play is the least successful of distinguished South African dramatist Athol Fugard’s works produced in America. It is also the only one that—at the time—didn’t specifically confront his nation’s racial problems. People Are Living There looked instead at the dreary lives of a small group of emotionally scarred characters living in a shabby Johannesburg boarding house run by the slovenly Milly (Estelle Parsons).

This unhappy woman, whose boarder-boyfriend of 10 years has just gone out with another woman, is surrounded by a pair of male boarders and the wife of one of them. Don (Leonard Frey) is a pessimistic, cynical young man who questions life’s meaning. Shorty (Peter Rogan) is a thick-witted postman married to the attractive but irritatingly obtuse Sissy (Diana Davila). The main part of the play concerns a 50th birthday party thrown by the group for Milly to cheer themselves up. Their bitterness soon gets the better of them and they fall to sniping at one another and especially at the hapless Shorty, who bears the brunt of everyone’s disgust.

Several critics took umbrage at what they deemed an action-less and largely uninvolving drama with a sardonic message about life’s vacuous purposes. Clive Barnes observed: “The writing is oddly grating. In Mr. Fugard's earlier plays his characters had their own reality and created their own speech patterns. But this seedy Johannesburg locale is too near to our own experience for us to accept the easy stylization of language that seemed acceptable in the earlier plays. And here Mr. Fugard's people just do not talk like people.”

Other complaints were leveled at the writing’s repetitiousness, lack of incident, overly literary style, and what Harold Clurman called the “clash between the play’s ideas—the dismaying absurdity of life—and the by now equally familiar naturalistic drawing of still another ‘lower depths’.” Nonetheless, Douglas Watt used the words “humorous, compassionate and forceful” to describe the work, while Jack Kroll pointed to its “power, scarifying humor and dramatic effectiveness.”

The consensus held that Estelle Parsons gave a sweepingly emotional performance in a production whose fine acting was its principal achievement. Barnes noted: “I much admired the flat‐voiced, flattened Cockney of Estelle Parsons as Milly the birthday girl on the fringe of disaster, the fiercely neurotic Leonard Frey, the more subdued Peter Rogan, and the dim‐mouthed Diana Davila. It is a good cast. But the play is missing. Possibly South Africa itself is as empty.”