Both of South African descent, Riaan Smit and Deborah Vieyra perform in Hello and Goodbye.
Both of South African descent, Riaan Smit and Deborah Vieyra perform in Hello and Goodbye.

Its title sums up this drama by celebrated South African playwright, Athol Fugard.  Nothing much happens between Hester’s first “Hello” to her estranged brother Johnnie and, a day or so later, her last “Goodbye.”

Hester has arrived at her childhood home, unannounced, after decades of separation, to claim her inheritance from her much despised father whom she believes is wallowing in his own private misery offstage.

The first act mainly focuses on her claim to her half of the $500 compensation paid to her and Johnnie’s father for the loss of his leg in a work-related accident.  Her behaviour alternates between screaming and sulking while her brother looks on with sullen disinterest.

Deborah Vieyra plays Hester with a thick Afrikaans accent that is sometimes difficult to follow, particularly when her anger adds speed to her delivery.  She could afford to explore more facets of the loneliness and pathos of the path she treads.

Riaan Smit’s interpretation of her spineless, semi-catatonic brother Johnnie is less grating, although his humdrum life is peppered with occasional outbursts of near-epileptic panic at the uselessness of his existence.  Here, too, Smit and director Bo Petersen might have delved more deeply into his depression and desperation.

Hester’s anger persists as she searches for the compensation money in box after half-empty box, sloughed into her hands by a reluctant Johnnie.  When she is out of the room, stripping to her underwear because of the stifling heat, Johnnie vomits a torrent of words, signifying nothing other than his uncontrollable panic over the situation and life in general.

The struggle of these dysfunctional siblings to rise above their true inheritance, that of hopelessness, goes nowhere other than in ever-decreasing circles of inadequacy.  Jiminy Cricket’s admonition to Pinocchio, “Don’t expect to get some help if you don’t help yourself,” springs to mind.

Brother and sister do share a few welcome moments of intimacy while they sit side by side on a sofa far too pristine for their circumstances.  As they sift through photos of old schoolmates, several shoes, and certificates found in a tattered briefcase, the experiences conjured might have provided some tender empathy in contrast to the rough urgency of their search.  But they don’t.

As time passes, it becomes apparent that Hester is not sure whether she yearns for the money due to her or the happier childhood she lost when her loving mother died prematurely, leaving her and her brother in the incompetent hands of their unloving father.  Her discovery of the fact furnishes a brief, but unfulfilled hope that the play will take a turn toward something beyond self-pitying reminiscence of a loathsome, squalid, poverty-stricken, dysfunctional white South African family.

This lack of development makes it difficult to summon compassion for the two protagonists’ dilemma.  Perhaps those who prefer misery might identify with them but, to quote Hamlet out of context, would they not rather “take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them?”

The “redemption” Johnnie experiences with the discovery of his father’s old crutches, as he picks his way through the debris strewn between boxes, falls short by a long way.  Instead of identifying with his relief, one is left wondering why the crutches don’t reach his armpits and another opportunity to paint a more rounded picture of the relationship between father and son is lost.

This is Petersen’s directing debut in Canada.  According to her program note, she performed in Hello and Goodbye in London, although most of her forty year theatre experience evolved in South Africa.  Perhaps we in Canada are more optimistic by nature and that is why Hello and Goodbye fails to resonate.

Hello and Goodbye by Athol Fugard. Directed by Bo Petersen. A Room Somewhere production on stage at The Nest (1398 Cartwright St, Vancouver) until July 6. Tickets are available online at Brown Paper Tickets.