Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
A Lesson from Aloes
The bottom tier of the stage, carefully detailed by designer Tim Mackabee, includes many an aloe plant, which in Fugard's native South Africa managed to withstand even drought conditions. The Hartford Stage performance space is vast and Matthew Richards' lighting is specific and of great import. It proactively alters tone in this presentation.
Piet (Randall Newsome) tends to an aloe during the opening of the play. He has worked against apartheid and respects the plant as a survivor. His wife Gladys (Andrus Nichols, piercing in her role) is disdainful of aloes. She sits at a table, wearing sunglasses, a woman who has experienced great inner turmoil. As the scripting unfolds, Gladys demonstrates extreme emotional mood swings. She is dismissive of her husband in scornful manner and even more angrily and loudly rails at him. Nichols wears each moment upon her face in a masterful performance.
During the first hour, Piet and Gladys often bicker. While they await a visit from Steve (Ariyon Bakare) and his family, husband and wife fill the air with conversation. Sometimes, the discussions are animated and push into the realm of politics. The couple is fairly isolated as they live outside of Port Elizabeth. Gladys has been away and her mental state is a fragile one. The ebb and flow during the first act is not particularly gripping.
Steve, a person of color, triangulates the play and adds high doses of tension during the final 45 minutes. He was in prison because someone informed on him. Steve, only recently out of jail, is still outraged about his arrest. He feels that he must take his family and go to England. After all, he is a very darkly complected man and he was sent away during an especially racist era in South Africa. He does not really wish to leave the country but says, "They won't give me a chance to live." Darko Tresnjak, ably directing and interpreting Fugard, visibly accelerates the pace as Steve comes on stage after intermission.
Piet, who was not likable during the early portion of this production, becomes more than just a man fiddling with plants. Steve and Gladys, too, interface with energetic exchange. The play feels more haunting as it is clearly delineated that people are fretful and fearful in South Africa. The government, one discerns, sees all. While Gladys is recovering from personal trauma, Piet, who has attempted to retreat, is far from safe. He recalls verse from poets he admires. Having stepped away from the political, he nevertheless (almost despite himself) cares about fellow human beings.
Andrus Nichols' performance as complex Gladys is artful. Initially, she appears to be a quiet woman. Sometimes Gladys, not repressed, is furious, tempestuous. She makes important reference to her diaries. She is annoyed with her husband's affection for his plants. She is suspicious of him. Gladys might be wondering if police will descend upon their home as they did in the past. In fact, the entire play focuses upon trust: is it possible?
This superbly enacted A Lesson from Aloes raises questions but does not provide answers. It is very much a character study and also a realistic play. Its symbolism is evident.
A Lesson from Aloes, through June 10, 2018, at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St, Hartford CT. For tickets, call 860-527-5151 or visit Hartfordstage.org.