Two South African brothers, one dark, one light, pass their lives in a grim shanty in the "colored" area outside Port Elizabeth. One restless night, they decide to get the dark brother a female pen pal.
From such simplicity, great drama is made. Or at least it is at the audacious new Signature Theatre Center, where its season devoted to Athol Fugard has begun with his own shattering staging of his 1961 breakthrough, "Blood Knot."
"Blood Knot" was not just the South African playwright's first major work. It was the first time blacks and whites ever acted onstage together in his country. For the first time in New York, someone other than Fugard is playing light-skinned Morris and Zach is not portrayed by his lifelong friend, Tony-winning actor Zakes Mokae, who died in 2009.
Despite an accent that fades in and out, Scott Shepherd, so good in the seven-hour "Gatz," is febrile and poignant as the light brother who tried "passing" but retreated in guilt for his people.
But the performance that should keep people talking for a long time belongs to Colman Domingo ("Passing Strange," "The Scottsboro Boys"), who plays the overworked, exhausted, indefatigably vital Zach. Hanging with unpredictable, precarious grace from his long bones, Domingo imprints Zach with layers of deeply individual playfulness, power and sorrow.
An excruciating tension arrives late in the sibling give-and-take when the men stumble into a role-playing game with "a white man's suit." In a hallucinatory flash, Morris swells into the clothes and the skin of a master, while ages of oppression turn Domingo's Zach into someone almost unrecognizable.
The play remains a wonder -- a two-man world of personal specificity and vast universality. More than ever, it seems its own blazing descendant of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," shaded with the heart of Lenny and George from "Of Mice and Men."
The new theater, one of three in the center designed by Frank Gehry, is called the Jewel Box. With its intimate balcony, it has the cozy feel of an old European opera house embraced by the architect's signature of modern chunky angles. How right to open the Jewel Box with a treasure of modern world drama.
WHAT "Blood Knot"
WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., Manhattan
INFO $25; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Shattering revival of great Fugard drama