Hartford Stage Ends Season with A Lesson from Aloes –How We Learn to Adapt and Survive

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Randall Newsome and Andrus Nichols. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Athol Fugard, the South African playwright has the ability to illuminate universal issues in a way that is both personal and touching.

His A Lesson from Aloes which is getting a stunning production at Hartford Stage through Sunday, June 10 is just one example of this talent.

I first saw Aloes at its U.S. premiere at Yale Rep in 1980 before it went on to Broadway where it garnered a number of awards and nominations.

At that time, I found it a thought-provoking and a deeply disturbing play. When Hartford Stage announced it was closing the season with Aloes (originally a different Fugard play had been announced), I wondered if my recollections would be reinforced.

Let me say immediately, that they were. This play is everything a good play should be. It has characters that you come to care about, it brings to our minds issues that are universal, and you will walk out of the theater thinking and feeling.

While Fugard provides in the text all the background you absolutely must know, like many of earlier plays, this deals with Apartheid in South Africa and the repressive governmental regime. He says he began the play in the early ‘60s and after sporadic work on it, abandoned it in the early ‘70s only to have it return to him in the later ‘70s. It had its world premiere in 1978.

Apartheid, which was institutionalized in 1948, was a system of strict racial segregation with all residents being classified as “White,” “Asian” (Indian or Pakistani in heritage), “Coloured” (bi-racial) or “African” (Black Africans). “Africans” were forced to move from their homes to what were called “homelands” and strict segregation was enforced between each of the groups. “Africans” needed a “passbook” to travel into non-African areas. Contact between the groups was minimized so that even friendships were illegal.

Remember that South Africa had first been colonized by the Dutch,  (called Boers or “Afrikaners”) and later the British. The Boer War between two Boer states and the British colony in 1899-1902 was over the control of gold mines. The British ultimately won (Winston Churchill’s reporting on the war and escape from capture, made his name in England). The result was the creation of an independent dominion of Great Britain as the Union of South Africa.

By the early 1960s, various protests had been held against the system but quashed by the government who used imprisonment, torture, banning (a method of forcing no contact with the individual), and other methods.

Aloes is set in Port Elizabeth which had seen numerous protests against apartheid, including multiple bus boycotts.

Piet is an Afrikaner but one who has joined the protest movement. He and his wife, Gladys who is of English descent, live a lower middle class life. He seems to have nothing to do but focus on his newest hobby — aloes, those plants that look somewhat like cacti and survive in the arid, hot environment near Port Elizabeth.

As the play opens he is trying to identify a mystery aloe, while his wife sits in the sun staring ahead. It is late afternoon and they are expecting visitors for supper: Piet’s friend Steve with his wife and four children. Piet after leaving a failing farm had been a bus driver and one day, during a bus boycott had abandoned his bus and listened to the protestors. Steve was speaking.

Though quiet, Gladys seems unsettled; something appears “not quite right with her.” The idea of guests rattles her.

As the act progress through the interactions of these two people, we learn so much more. That Steve had been “banned” and had broken the banning order by attending a party where he was arrested and jailed. That after the party, the security police searched Piet and Gladys’ house; they discovered diaries that Gladys had been keeping for years and confiscated them.

It isn’t until act two that Steve arrives, without his wife and children. He is leaving South Africa in a week to live in Britain. The inhospitable atmosphere has made it impossible for him to flourish and he fears his children would face the same future.

This triangle of backgrounds and points of view all share one thing: they have each been perhaps fatally wounded by the political repression and actions of the government.

Piet is viewed by some of his political colleagues as possibly the informer that let the police know that Steve would be at the party. He says he can make the case that any of the attendees were the one.

Gladys had a nervous breakdown following the confiscation of her diaries and feels her very privacy violated. She was hospitalized and underwent electric shock treatment.

Steve see no alternative but to leave his country, despairing that change will ever happen. [It took until 1994 for the apartheid system to finally end though it had been modified in the ‘80s.]

Each in his or her way is like the aloes that were able to survive in the environment. As Piet says, “we all need survival mechanisms” and the aloes have survived. Gladys though wants more than just to survive; she would readily follow Steve’s path and relocate to England but Piet is an Afrikaner through and through. Like the aloes he will not give up.

In this domestic drama, Fugard manages to explore the issues of how humans adapt and survive; the various mechanisms we use to convince ourselves that either we can change things or that things will change or that we can survive. The three characters have faced issues of trust and commitment to each other, to the country of their birth and to their principles. The ability to trust others has been shaken to the core.

Of the three, Gladys, played beautifully by Andrus Nichols, is the most complex. It might be due to the mental illness brought on by the raid and the idea that some anonymous men are reading her private diaries OR by deep seated anger and resentment with Piet and his ability to go on without acknowledging the situation. Put she is the instigator of some of the more explosive conversation with both her husband and with him and Steve. In some ways, she sees things more clearly that Piet.

Ariyon Bakare’s Steve is a simmering volcano. You wait for him to explode with rage at his situation – having been persecuted, jailed, discriminated against and now, seeing no recourse but to abandon his home. It isn’t been the first time he has been forced out; he and his father had to leave their home for the newly established “homelands” far from the sea where his father loved to fish. That he suspects Piet is no surprise.

But it is Randall Newsome (Piet) who with a minimum of movement and controlled emotions is the center of this piece.  Newsome projects a quiet dignity and sense of self that is both admirable and, to Gladys, infuriating. Is he the idealist? Or is he blind to realities?

Director Darko Tresnjak, who immigrated to America with his mother when he was 10 from the repressive Communist Yugoslavia (now Serbia), certainly must have an understanding of what fear can do to people.  He has said he believed this play had particular relevance for the current world situation. It is not difficult to see what he means.

Adding to his powerful direction – he uses stillness to maximum effect, he is aided by superb lighting by Matthew Richards which often focus our attention on the aloes – those stubborn, determined to survive plants. The sound design by Jane Shaw occasionally punctures the silence with reminders of the world outside.

Some may find A Lesson from Aloes to talky and slow moving.

But for me, it is a thought-provoking exploration of how different individuals cope with their environment and, like the aloes, learn to survive.

For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com

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Ariyon Bakare and Randall Newsome. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

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