Boesman and Lena opens with a cacophony, followed by long minutes of silence. Out of the darkness and smoke, Boesman (Ron Himes) appears, trudging across the back of the stage with a leaden gait. Far in his wake comes Lena (Linda Kennedy), her own tread slow and unsteady. They disappear offstage, then return moving slowly toward the filthy, junk-strewn island of sand and rock that sits in the center of the Edison Theatre stage. Lena's first word "Here?" is the flat sound of exhaustion. Boesman's response is an elegantly hawked loogie, which arcs into the darkness.
"Here" is all the two have at this point, their home having been bulldozed with the rest of the slum this morning. They've walked all day to get "here": the mud flats of the river Swartkops in South Africa. On this desolate patch of earth, Boesman and Lena spend a hard and lonely night fighting when they should be resting, arguing when they should be listening, remembering when they should be forgetting. But in the fighting and the shouting and the remembering, Boesman and Lena recover something they have lost: each other. That such a blasted landscape should prove to be soil rich enough to renew their withered relationship is nothing short of miraculous. That the Black Rep's Ron Himes and Linda Kennedy bring this renewal to believable and touching fruition is a testament to their prowess as actors, and to Athol Fugard's wiry script. There is much silence and much unsaid in Boesman and Lena; but when someone speaks, there are no wasted breaths.
For Lena, the sense of loss manifests as regret for their destroyed home. Kennedy plays Lena with muted toughness; she has been beaten by Boesman, but she continues to push against him despite the always-present promise of another beating. Lena badgers Boesman with questions about where they're going and what they're doing in the mud flats again, which sparks her memory into a recitation of all the times they've been chased from homes. She struggles to recall the proper order of all their forced marches and pesters Boesman to help her remember this is Lena's main concern. She's lived the experience, but she's forgotten how it happened. Her persistence on this point drives Boesman to rage. "Now is the only time in your life," he growls at her.
And this is Boesman's problem. He remembers it all: Every time he had to grovel before a white man; every time he saw his hard work undone; every time he failed Lena and lost their home. It's all ever-present for Boesman it's all "here" no matter where he goes, it's always "now." Himes hides his face under a low-slung hat, but his eyes glitter in the shadows, alive and dangerous. He creates a very real physicality for Boesman, with a ramrod-straight back and a sense of barely restrained violence in his heavy shoulders. When this violence finally erupts late in the evening, the devastation of his outburst brings him to his knees the burden Boesman carries, the weight of memory, is too terrible even for him to contemplate for long. It's a righteous and draining scene, worth the price of admission.
Praise is due to scenic designer Brian Purlee. His simulacrum of the mud flats is littered with bleached branches, sheets of corrugated steel and other unidentifiable detritus. Over the course of the first act, Himes builds a shanty out of the debris, then proceeds to modify it. This re-engineering helps to define Boesman, a man who keeps building and planning, trying to make everything right, even when all he has to build with is garbage.
Early in the play, Boesman dismisses Lena's questions about where they're going and what they'll do when they get there by saying, "Boesman and Lena it explains." The play lurches toward explicating this answer all night, pausing to destroy everything, then moving forward again. At the end Boesman and Lena finds itself back at the beginning. Not a new beginning, but a point where Boesman and Lena are explanation enough.