Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

The Blue Iris

Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill
It's hard to know exactly what to make of The Blue Iris, Athol Fugard's latest play to have its U.S. premiere at the Fountain. It's a small, intimate piece—much more about people than South Africa. To be sure, the play's setting, the semi-desert of the Karoo, is the play's catalyst, if not its actual antagonist. But the play features only South Africa as an inhospitable climate, not South Africa as a sociopolitical entity. It is a household who lives here—or, more accurately, lived here—that is the focus of The Blue Iris.

The play opens on Robert, a farmer, and Rieta, his housekeeper, clearing through the detritus of the fire-ravaged farmhouse Robert used to call home, with his wife, Sally. Sally, we soon learn, has died—not in the fire, but shortly thereafter. Robert is lost in the remnants of his home, randomly picking through the debris, while nearly lost in his own guilt. Robert knows he didn't cause the fire—it was a strike of lightning that destroyed his home—but he feels responsible for Sally's unhappiness in their marriage. He's haunted by Sally's ghost, and believes that he must remain forever in the house, attempting to restore it, in order to bring Sally peace. That isn't a metaphor; The Blue Iris is a genuine ghost story, and Sally's spirit ultimately makes a very tangible appearance in the play.

The flower of the play's title refers to a desert blossom which was the first of many that Sally drew. Being a city girl married to a farmer, Sally had a difficult time finding her place in the Karoo, and she ultimately set herself the task of creating a compendium of drawings of the flowers of the place—sort of a South African desert flower Audubon Book. The Blue Iris was her first drawing—it gave her a purpose—and when Robert finds Sally's Blue Iris amazingly unscathed by the fire, he's certain that he can use it to convince Sally that she can rest.

The Blue Iris speaks to issues of grief and guilt, memory and truth, unhappiness and hope. But for all that, I have to admit that it didn't speak to me. I found myself marvelling at the high standards of the production—Jeff McLaughlin's amazingly detailed burned-out set and Misty Carlisle's delicious props (look at the broken and burnt beams in the partially destroyed wall, the burned books replaced on the shelves, and the clouds of dust that rise when Rieta moves an old box), and Peter Bayne's spectacular sound design (is the wind actually whispering "Robert"?)—rather than being involved in it. The same is true for the performances. Fugard veteran Morlan Higgins shows "wistful" and "lost" on Robert's face; Julanne Chidi Hill is full of no-nonsense good sense as Rieta; and Jacqueline Schultz earns full marks for convincingly speaking dialogue that makes Sally simultaneously fragile and strong. But even there, I kept thinking that a lesser actress could not have pulled this off, rather than genuinely feeling anything for Sally.

I ultimately fault the play. It's a single act (75 minutes) and feels rather more like a short story staged than an actual play—lots of talking about what once happened, with very little dramatic tension. Props to director Stephen Sachs for making the single dramatic moment work brilliantly, but there just isn't much to the play beyond that. Once the story of the drawing of the Blue Iris is resolved, a secondary plot line (vaguely hinted at earlier) appears and resolves itself; this, too, allows for some very effective acting from the talented cast. Overall, however, it just never pulled me in.

The Blue Iris runs at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles through September 16, 2012. For tickets and information, see

The Fountain Theatre —Producing Artistic Director Deborah Lawlor, Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs, Producing Director Simon Levy —presents The Blue Iris by Athol Fugard. Set and lighting design Jeff McLaughlin; costume design Naila Aladdin Sanders; composer/sound design Peter Bayne; prop design Misty Carlisle; dialect coach JB Blanc; production stage manager Terri Roberts; technical director Scott Tuomey; publicist Lucy Pollak. Produced by Deborah Lawlor and Simon Levy. Directed by Stephen Sachs.

Rieta Passman —Julanne Chidi Hill
Robert Hannay —Morlan Higgins
Sally Hannay —Jacqueline Schultz

Photo: Ed Krieger

- Sharon Perlmutter