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Diane lost her husband, a “brilliant” CEO, in Africa. Now the socialite wants to sell the house, land a job (her first), and sever all connections with her past. Diane’s in such deep denial, her daughter says, she can’t decide where to put her husband’s ashes.

Ater Dahl’s also in denial. But his is a protective shield. Without it, a therapist says, he’s so traumatized he might cease to function. Ater is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Beginning in 1983, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army began a war with the Sudanese government. An estimated two million people have lost their lives, and five million have been displaced.

Barking dogs awoke Ater one morning. His village was under attack. He heard screams, then watched members of his family murdered. Like an estimated 4000 boys from 3 to 17, he fled, becoming one of the “lost boys” who ran hundreds of miles, barefoot, across the Sudan, many of them back and forth twice (there are no “lost” women or girls; they were made slaves). Ater saw more havoc by the time he was eight years old than most soldiers see in multiple tours of duty.

In Mia McCullough’s Since Africa, currently at the Old Globe’s second stage, Diane and Deacon Reggie Hudson attempt to “resettle” Ater in Chicago. Both mean well, but their motives become suspect. She supplies financial, the Deacon spiritual, perks. They attempt to Americanize Ater and help him forget his horrors. But neither sees him. Instead each is a Pygmalion; they see who they want him to become. Are they aiding or trying to colonize, Ater?

Since Africa plays like an extended commentary on John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, also at the Old Globe. Amid small-world nearness stand walls of separation, both personal and cultural. Breakthroughs are possible, though attempts to change a person often result in confirming differences — and awakened self-awareness. Diane and the Deacon learn they must let go, decontrol, as do Paul and Ouisa, sadly, in Six Degrees.

The play’s also a commentary on William Faulkner’s famous line, “The past is never dead; it isn’t even past.” Attempts to lop off one’s backstory reforge the connection.

Until mid–act 2, Since Africa is low on drama. The playwright tends to wade into a scene, for ten or so lines, then paddles hard. The best scenes, like young Eve’s monologue about how she got her scar, would be much stronger if McCullough tightened the first third.

The Old Globe made a smart choice in having Seema Sueko direct Since Africa. She’s staged the play before, for her Mo`olelo company, and knows its quirks. Aided by Jason Bieber, whose lighting shifts from hot blue and orange Sudanese patterns to cold Chicago interiors in a flash, and Paul Peterson’s excellent sounds (Dinka chants, drumbeats that interview people), Sueko weaves an arresting mysticism throughout.

Linda Gehringer’s unafraid to push Diane a few clicks past likability (she really wants to help Ater), which gives her performance, and Diane’s metamorphosis, an authentic ring. Willie C. Carpenter (so memorable in the Globe’s Two Trains Running as the homeless man who wanted his “ham”) does a subtle turn. His Deacon gains unexpected wisdom as he speculates about his roots. Warner Miller’s Ater and Ashley Clements’s young Eve add dimension to slender roles and become perplexed by what others take for granted.

Since Africa plods, at times, but also offers payoffs, especially in its critique of intentions. Kristin D. Carpenter constitutes an ongoing payoff. She plays the Nameless One, a statue come to life, who dances with vigor and joy. She could be Ater’s anima (the Jungian “shadow self”) or a sprightly protector watching over the Lost Boys. She helps Ater sustain a link between his past and present and, in the end, helps the others to build that bridge as well.

***

Field Notes
1. Two excellent books on the Lost Boys: Benson Deng, et al., They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky (Public Affairs); Mark Bixler, The Lost Boys of the Sudan (University of Georgia Press).

2. The San Diego Theater Critics Circle recently gave actor Jonathan McMurtry a Lifetime Achievement Award. McMurtry, who has performed for 48 years at the Old Globe, is doing some his finest work — ever — in The Dresser at the North Coast Rep. Teaming with the excellent Sean Sullivan in the title role, McMurtry plays “Sir,” an old trouper readying himself for his 227th performance as King Lear during the London Blitz. Much as they’d like to, the North Coast Rep can’t extend this terrific production, which must close Sunday.

Since Africa, by Mia McCullough
Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park
Directed by Seema Sueko; cast, Kristin D. Carpenter, Linda Gehringer, Ashley Clements, Warner Miller, Willie C. Carpenter; scenic design, Nick Fouch; costumes, Charlotte Devaux; lighting, Jason Bieber; sound, Paul Peterson
Playing through March 8; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.

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