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Aurora’s ‘Breakfast with Mugabe’ is a tension-fraught 100-minute power struggle

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Dr. Peric (r. Dan Hiatt) delves into Robert Mugabe’s (l. L. Peter Callender) past over breakfast. Courtesy of Aurora Theatre Company.

A fascinating man who has never shied away from making controversial decisions, Robert Mugabe is at the center of Aurora Theater Company’s play “Breakfast with Mugabe.” The show, which examines Mugabe’s relationship with psychiatrist Andrew Peric, creates eerily lifelike representations of the Mugabe family. It also chillingly examines what can happen to someone who unknowingly crosses the line in a world of unspoken rules. Brilliantly acted and fraught with tension, Jon Tracy’s production made up for the play’s uneventful first half with a truly poignant conclusion.

Where this play succeeds beyond a shadow of a doubt is as a case study of Robert Mugabe. L. Peter Callender is absolutely transformed into Mugabe, from his defiant, proud posture to his calculated speech. The moment he steps onstage, we know there is something different about this man. Is it that he’s haunted by demons — a spirit who represents his dead friend and disrupts the family’s dinners, invisible to others? This is, after all, the entire problem new psychiatrist Peric (a solid turn by Dan Hiatt) is coming to solve. Or is it Mugabe himself who terrorizes and haunts others?

Grace Mugabe (l. Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) has an intimate chat with Dr. Peric (r. Dan Hiatt) about the president’s progress. Courtesy of Aurora Theatre Company
Grace Mugabe (l. Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) has an intimate chat with Dr. Peric (r. Dan Hiatt) about the president’s progress. Courtesy of Aurora Theatre Company

The play allows us to ponder these questions while throwing us into the relationship between Mugabe and Dr. Peric. Peric struggles to establish his method and ground rules while trying to listen to his patient and help him get better. Set designer Nina Ball creates a beautifully regal — and somehow simultaneously foreboding — government chamber in the Mugabe home as the backdrop for their interactions. It’s a constant compromise, a dance in which Peric pursues some questions, involving Grace Mugabe (a regal Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) and the butler Gabriel (Adrian Roberts), and lets others sit.

This tension is incredibly effective, and it’s something that’s tricky for a playwright to create. But it lasts too long. We appreciate the tremendous acting and beautiful set in the beginning, but there’s constantly a sense of waiting for something to happen. A few scenes drag on; verbal dueling without action cannot hold our interest forever. Finally, Dr. Peric goes too far with his questions, with disastrous consequences. When Mugabe strikes at Peric’s wife and home, we finally see how twisted the power games this man plays really are.

The play is at its best here, when it lets its characters deal with the aftermath of this shocking and unnecessary loss. The final image of “Breakfast with Mugabe” is unspeakably poignant. Peric sits silently at a table in his shabby country home — an effective atmosphere change achieved through strategic lighting and a simple set change — staring blankly ahead. Grace Mugabe comes by — she’s on the campaign trail – to offer Peric some would-be comforting words. He doesn’t react. She leaves. After a moment, he pushes the cup of coffee from his end of the table to an invisible someone on the other side.

Who will these spirits haunt next? Will powerful people always win? “Breakfast with Mugabe” leaves us with more questions than answers, but it leaves no doubt as to the brutal nature of Robert Mugabe. While the play certainly drops enough historical information to satisfy any scholar of Zimbabwe and to intrigue any newcomer, it’s the immediacy and authenticity of the characters we see onstage in front of us that draw us in for the length of this tense one-act play.

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Noemi Berkowitz is the Chief Theater Critic and a desk editor at The Stanford Daily. She is a junior from Lincoln, Nebraska, double majoring in theater and psychology. You may see her reciting Shakespeare, wearing tie-dye and hiking. Contact her at noemi11 'at' stanford.edu.