KPBS AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 3, 1991
There are all kinds of aloes, the perennial succulent indigenous to Africa. They provide a strong metaphor as a pulpy symbol of survival– tough on the outside, soft on the inside, able to endure years of draught. We get potent and affecting instruction in “A Lesson From Aloes.”
This is the second play in as many years that esteemed South African playwright Athol Fugard has directed at the La Jolla Playhouse. As an extra bonus this time, he also appears in the production, his first acting job on this coast. The sum total is a theatrical privilege, and a moving, dramatic masterpiece.
Fugard plays Piet, an Afrikaner bus driver living in 1963 Port Elizabeth (the playwright’s real home town). The play is set during the worst years of apartheid. Regardless of skin color, we soon see that all three of the characters — Piet, his psychologically-ailing wife Gladys, and a militant, colored Africaner friend, Steve — have been demolished by the oppressive system, their lives defaced and disfigured.
There are myriad small griefs and pains here, set against a backdrop of national anguish. But the canvas is even bigger than that. Bigotry is not unique to South Africa. And even though that country has undergone massive changes in the last few years, the past should not be lost on the present.
As in other early 1980’s plays like “Master Harold… and the Boys,” Fugard again shows his brilliant ability to focus a searing, unblinking close-
up lens on ordinary individuals, while at the same time pulling back to reveal the big picture, a scorching, disturbing wide angle view of the world.
I haven’t been so emotionally gripped by his work since I saw “Master Harold.” I didn’t get this strong gut response to last year’s “My Children! My Africa!” at the Playhouse, nor to the 1989 Old Globe production of “The Road to Mecca.” But this play took my breath away. This is what theater should be.
It’s a flawless production. Each of the three actors plumbs real depth of character. But they are well guided by magnificent, poetic writing, a deceptively simple scenic design, and some very, very fine direction.
Fugard is masterful as Piet, a role he slips into as effortlessly as he does his knee socks and khaki shorts. He is a complex man who spouts English poetry, always preparing the perfect quote for the occasion. But he has little to say to support his emotionally-fragile wife, or defend his principles and honesty to his friend. Bennet Guillory doesn’t show up till Act two but when he does, he descends like a lightning bolt, splintering the delicate, brittle relationships that link the three protagonists.
Maria Tucci’s Gladys is so pained and unpredictable, so shattered, so despairing, that you can’t help but have a visceral response to her emotional twists and deadly honesty. Fugard the director uses silence and immobility to excellent effect; his work is beautifully enhanced by the suggestive set and lighting. And then there are those aloes, Piet’s new hobby since “there’s no politics left.” From the opening moments of the play, he’s obsessing about one little plant. He can’t find it in any of his books… Maybe it’s the new strain of survivors. These aloes may have thorns and a thick skin, but never forget that they come from the elegant, flowering family of lilies.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.