If a great play is defined as the dramatization of private, internalized conflict both among and within characters where that conflict is both informed by and reflective of their public, external environment, Athol Fugard’s A LESSON FROM ALOES, first performed at Yale Rep in 1978, qualifies and then some. And, under the impeccable direction of Darko Tresnjak, with a superb cast, there might not be a finer production than what is poignantly achieved at the Hartford Stage.
It’s 1963 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, at the height of apartheid. Piet, an Afrikaaner , who migrated to the city after having lost his family farm to drought and earned a living as bus driver, tends his aloe collection in his tiny backyard. He’s observed by his wife Gladys, of British colonial descent, recovering from time at a mental institution, who frets over hosting an evening dinner. Their guest will be Steve, a Black South African, recently released from prison for political resistance, with whom Piet was involved in the anti-apartheid cause. Steve is emigrating with his family to England.
Act 1 between Piet and Gladys is a remarkable dissection of loss. For Piet, it’s not only his farm but also his sense of purpose - his commitment to the cause which Steve introduced him to. For Gladys, it’s not only the episodic loss of mental stability, but also the loss of her diaries in a police raid when Piet became investigated by the state. Like aloes in harsh terrain, they as individuals and as couple struggle for survival. Gladys resentments run deep: she blames Piet and his political activism for the rape of her privacy. When Steve arrives in Act 2, Piet and Steve’s bond of loyalty and friendship is challenged when Gladys acts out with uncontrollable, cruel, passive-aggressivity.
Fugard’s drama is exactly character-driven, and each performance perfectly nuanced: Andrus Nichols as Gladys, Randall Newsome as Piet and Ariyon Bakare as Steve. Kudos to dialect coach Ben Furey: Piet sounds like an Afrikaaner, Gladys clearly is of British descent, and Steve’s English informed by his native language. Jane Shaw’s sound design of distant traffic and barking dogs suggests isolation. Matthew Richards' lighting design tracks the slow, inevitable crawl of hot afternoon sun transforming to simmering dark.
Director Tresnjak orchestrates Fugard’s piece of time, piece of earth, with steady, invisible hand, allowing the play’s timelessness and universality speak for itself. The outside world is both cause and effect. How do we respond? Do we or the world define that response? What are the costs to fight or flight, to survive? Questions seldom poised as subtly or as powerfully as they are in A LESSON FROM ALOES at Hartford Stage. Simply marvelous theatre.
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