Review: A.C.T. reprises 'Blood Knot' with insight, grace

Perplexing, intriguing, engrossing, Athol Fugard's 1961 “Blood Knot” is one of his best plays. The American Conservatory Theater's production focuses attention once again on the puzzle represented by the juxtaposition of the date and the judgment in the sentence above.

Fugard was not yet 30, “Blood Knot” was his first substantial play — and it turned out so well, fully equal of his works to come years later: “Sizwe Banzi is Dead,” “Master Harold…and the Boys” among them.

The subject, asin all the white South African playwright's works, is the suppression of the racist country's black citizens. And yet, even more than in other Fugard plays, this heavy subject is not getting a heavy-handed treatment — there is psychology and deep insight into humanity (and lack of it), rather than preaching from the soapbox of the stage.

One of the play's great accomplishments is in making its bold minimalism work so well. Two brothers — one black, the other lighter skinned — live and struggle together; they become embroiled in a potential disaster from starting a pen pal correspondence with a white woman.

A simple story, a cast of two — now that's truly minimal, but the writing, Charles Randolph-Wright's surehanded direction, Alexander V. Nichols' unit set, and — especially — the acting (Steven Anthony Jones, playing Zachariah, and Jack Willis, his brother Morris), with Tracy Chapman's affecting original music written for the San Francisco production, combine for something considerably larger than the sum of its parts.

There are elements of “Waiting for Godot” and “Of Mice and Men” in the play, but “Blood Knot” (the symbol of the brothers' unalterable belonging together) is all Fugard.

Blood knot — a strong knot used for tying fishing leaders together — is also called a barrel knot, but that just won't do here. This knot, with the ropes tied around each other several times for strength two or three times, has the power of shared blood in it.

Morris, who apparently — it's just a hint — tried to pass for white, returned to the pair's shack, devoting himself to take care of the less educated, less focused Zach. The knot works both ways, and Zach pulls back Morris from the edge of despair.

Without speeches or pearls of wisdom, “Blood Knot” leaves the audience with a cathartic realization that brothers who are different in skin color or ability are still brothers above all —and perhaps that is true beyond the confines of the stage.

Flawless, strong delivery from the two actors does wonders for the production. One mild problem is Willis' taking on and dropping (mostly the latter) the accent that would qualify him as a resident of Port Elisabeth, at the southern tip of the country. It would be less distracting if he stuck with only a slightly modified American accent, but consistently, especially because consistency is present in all other aspects of this laudable production.

IF YOU GO

Blood Knot

Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco

<p>When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays-Sundays; 7 p.m. some Sundays, closes March 9

Tickets: $20 to $80

Contact: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org

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