Acclaimed playwright Athol Fugard knows only too well what was like to live in an oppressive police state, and has explored time and again the political struggles of black and white South Africans during his long career as a playwright, actor and director.
A Lesson from Aloes, first performed in 1978, is one such play, a fine example of Fugard’s depth of writing, well-defined characters, and conflicts that can be peeled away like an onion. Quotidian Theatre Company’s A Lesson from Aloes is highlighted by intimacy, a deep understanding of the text, and an outstanding performance.
Director Laura Giannarelli, aided by Jack Sbarbori’s sparse, suggestive scenic design, keeps the focus on Fugard’s three characters and the tensions between them. A row of wooden fencing outlining the yard, an outdoor dining area, and interior bedroom provide the necessary settings, with Don Slater’s subtle and effective lighting providing needed emphasis.
The property is the home of Piet and Gladys Benzuidenhout, white Afrikaners living in Algoa Park in the city of Port Elizabeth. The year is 1963, when the practice of racial separation was fully engaged by the Nationalist Party Government, a virtual police state, where sympathizers and anti-apartheid activists were dealt with harshly.
Piet, fond of quoting Shakespeare, busies himself with tending to aloe plants, his new obsession. His days of working against apartheid are behind him as he putters with his potted plants and tends to his wife Gladys, recently returned from a time away at hospital. Piet is of Dutch South African descent while Gladys is a British colonial. Both are friends with Steve Daniels, a black man with whom Piet worked alongside as anti-apartheid activists. The Benzuidenhout’s have invited Steve and his family over for a reunion dinner that is also a farewell affair. Steve and his family are moving to England soon for better opportunities for work and a life away from apartheid.
A Lesson from Aloes
closes May 29, 2016
Details and tickets
It is within this simple premise Fugard sets in motion an intimate, three-person dance where the themes of trust, betrayal, and doubt ebb and flow and show how deep the wounds of apartheid plunge into the heart of those who lived through it. Piet has retreated to his property, nicknamed Xanadu, to obsess over different varieties of aloe plants; Gladys disapproves of his hobby. Gladys, on the other hand, is in a delicate state, having gone through a nervous breakdown after a police raid on their home some years before. And Steve has only recently been released from prison, having been detained by the police after an informant’s tip lead the authorities to him.
Could Piet have been the police informant? Is that why Piet and Gladys have no friends? These questions criss-cross through the dialogue and form unspoken barriers for the three characters to overcome. Fugard’s imagery of a land fettered with drought – both literally and figuratively – also provides a thematic through line that leads to the Chekhovian conclusion. As a matter of fact, this play reminded me a lot of a Chekhov piece – long on ideas and imagery, shorter on action and a firm conclusion.
Laura Russell gives a memorable performance of delicacy, grace and depth as Piet’s wife Gladys. Russell easily captures the brittle nature of a woman who has suffered emotionally and mentally from a breakdown and is uneasily rejoining her husband in the outside world. Glady’s relationship to Piet and Steve are pivotal to A Lesson from Aloes and Fugard allows the layers to peel away slowly. Russell’s attention to detail, portraying a woman not yet recovered from her trauma and treatment, is unmatched and makes for a riveting performance.
As Piet, David S. Dubov-Flinn provides a calm, languid presence that displays a man more resigned to his fate as an amateur gardener than as a former freedom fighter. As his former compatriot, Addison Switzer brings a charm to the role of Steve but also finds the deeper wounds of a man who fate has dealt a rotten hand and who has had to pay a steep price, simply based on the color of his skin. Once Piet and Steve are reunited, the finer details of their relationship come into focus and Dubov-Flinn and Switzer display the connection between the two troubled friends with clarity.
Their scene together (the second act) helps inject the production with much needed energy that I felt lacked during the first act. During the first act, the pacing was slow enough to be noticed after the first 30 minutes. This might be adjusted as the actors warm up the play and get used to the performances, or it might have been a conscience choice – either way, it was noticeable. (I suggest grabbing one of the convenient cushions the Writer’s Center has waiting in the lobby; their seats are roomy but a bit stiff.)
As an audience member in 2016, watching a play about the harsh apartheid laws of South Africa in the 1960s, I could not help but think of our own history of Jim Crow laws and other racially motivated violations of human rights. But the more personal details of Fugard’s play – loyalty, betrayal, doubt – these themes hit home with even more power.
A Lesson from Aloes by Athol Fugard . Director: Laura Giannarelli . Featuring David S. Dubov-Flinn , Laura Russell, and Addison Switzer . Set Designer: Jack Sbarboni . Costume design: Stephanie Mumford . Lighting design: Don Slater . Sound design: Clay Tunis . Stage manager: Brianna Capps . Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.