A Lesson From Aloes, by Athol Fugard. Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Randall Newsome, Ariyon Bakare, Andrus Nichols; photo: T. Charles Erickson
"Is it because of me?"
Aloe is a genus containing over 500 species of flowering succulent plants.Some aloes native to South Africa are tree-like. According to Piet Bezuidenhout there is much to be learned from these plants about the infinite variety of human discourse and reason. Piet is growing older and his wife Gladys is growing wilder and his old friend Steve Daniels is growing wiser. Long-term friends Piet and Steve are reunited after Steve's long jail term for an act of insurrection that he most likely didn't commit. Their dinner party reunion at the Bezuidenhout home in the countryside outside of Port Elizabeth brings about revolutionary revelations.
This 1981 Tony Award winning play by Athol Fugard is set in 1963 during the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Piet is white Dutch Afrikaner and Steve is black. Former best friends Steve is unaware of who betrayed him to the authorities, brought about his arrest and destroyed his ability to work as a mason. He is about to take his large family to England to start life anew and has come to say goodbye. Piet's wife, an overly anxious, clearly tormented woman, sets in motion the concept of betrayal and leaves the men to work out their differences, if indeed they have any to face.
In Darko Tresnjak's current production at Hartford Stage there emerges a resemblance to a much earlier work, Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" in which the children of a man's former partner, long jailed for his part in building self-destucting airplanes, confront their host with the possible truths of his personal betrayal of that partnership during which amazing secrets, long-held, are revealed. The same thing happens in "...Aloes" although it is possible, even probable, that the secrets spoken by Gladys and not refuted by Piet may not be truths at all.
Three exceptional actors are appearing in this play. Randall Newsome plays Piet. He is older than anticipated but is strong in the role, a dominant father-figure whose ease with the plants is a replication of his manner with his wife and his attempted reconciliation with his old friend. With the help of dialect coash Ben Furey, Newsome presents the Afrikaner as a man whose knowledge cannot be easily communicated to another person, non-Afrikaner, for his language is critically local and his accent is overwhelmingly authentic. Newsome manages to get his character's points across as much through body language as through the spoken word. We may not be able to always understand what he says, but we can see what he means which is a remarkable achievement for an actor. His very genuine affection for this wife, and for his old friend, is visible and sincere. The depth of his understanding is also very well presented. What is not clear, and this is the script and not the actor, is how deeply involved Piet may have been in the arrest of his friend. That truth bounces off the fourth wall, us, and returns to the stage unproven and unsure for Piet never reveals what is real and what is not. Newsome handles this remarkably, his stiff posture unyielding, his facial expression unrevealing. I liked this performance immensely.
Ariyon Bakare plays Steve with the gusto of a much younger man. Not on stage until Act Two he is a personage that fufills the presence described and discussed in Act One. He is a dynamic actor who portrays love and rage with the same fervor and makes them clear and clean. He responds to the husband and wife who were once Steve's greatest friends with both perfect deference and absolute understanding. Bakare's performance holds the play together, for he is the human realization of the Aloe that cannot be classified by Piet in Act One. What he knows is a secret. What that secret may be is never fully tapped. What he must do is to choose his course, a choice seemingly already made, but not fully acted upon. In a play in which personal mysteries are hinted at from the beginning, Bakare plays the Hitchcockian mystery element that may or may not be the clue needed to complete the picture. He does it very well indeed.
Gladys is brought to the stage by actress Andrus Nichols. Gladys is the character with the most to lose, even though her part in the past history of the revolutionay movement is not as clear as those of her male counterparts. A voice of reason, she is ultimately revealed to be a person of interest in many ways: her mental state, her memories, her life-force, her direction are all multi-layered and her layers overlap in horrifying ways. Is there truth in her gang rape at the hands of authorities? Is there truth in her diaries, stolen and never returned? Is there truth in her desire to return to a place where she has been healed from mental wounds? Is there, in fact, truth in this woman at all?
Nichols brings to Gladys a solid reality that melts away moment by moment. Watching her play this part it is almost as though she sheds layers of skin, as a snake might, revealing a new layer below it. In fact she almost seems to lose solid bulk as we watch her progress through the afternoon and night of the play's own timeline. If any of these characters that Fugard created move outside their initial realms, and they all do to some extent, it is Gladys who takes the longest and hardest emotional journey. Nichols makes that mental roadway into a monster highway of emmotional upheaval. Though central to the story, Nichols' Gladys is its signpost, one that flashes in neon and brass and pure gold.
Director Darko Tresnjak has brought this fine play to very vivid light through these actors' and their work. He has removed the "star" quality of a James Earl Jones, a Maria Tucci, a Harris Yulin and given us people as people, a means of concentrating on the characters rather than the actors. He has taken away the obscurity of the title and brought to life the inner diversity of the human mind. This is the best of this play and it lives beautifully on the Hartford stage.
He is aided immensely by his design team. Tim Mackabee's open set has the feel of the countryside without a single tree in sight. Blair Gulledge has taken the fabric of the period and brought it to vivid life as each character's clothing presents them as comfortable in their attire, old clothing kept to the best condition it could be under the circumstances. Matthew Richard lighting is simple and mood enhancing and shows us a simulataneous interior and exterior that are ideally illuminated for the times of day portrayed. Jane Shaw's sound design keeps us grounded in the place where the play is set.
Seeing this play again, after so many years, and finding that match-up with the psychological setting of Arthur Miller's play (my favorite of his works), makes the half-true revelations of Fugard's work so much more intriguing than I recall from more than thirty years ago. It's worth the trip to Hartford to witness the excellence of this production. I am so glad I took that journey.
Randall Newsome as Piet; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Andrus Nichols as Gladys; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Ariyon Bakare as Steve; photo: T. Charles Erickson
A Lesson From Aloes plays at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford, CT through June 10. For information and tickets go to hartfordstage.org or call 860-527-5151.