Even here in America, and even so long after the actual fact, we know that playwright Athol Fugard’s forte topic is South Africa’s Apartheid era, battling as he does the effects of the severe division enacted upon the populace in the name of keeping the races separate and unequal.
Deep Dish Theater Company has chosen Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes, set in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, as its newest production. A supposedly simple play having only three as a cast, Aloes delves deep into the effects of this oppressive regime on three people who have very different pasts. Apartheid has affected all three, both directly and indirectly; and the result is devastating for all.
A compact but lovely set designed by Lisa Tireman, who created costumes for Deep Dish’s The Gratitude of Wasps, depicts the lanai of “Xanadu,” the small seaside villa of the Bezuidenhouts, a married couple whose individual pasts each carry painful memories. Piet (Tony Lea) began his professional life as a farmer, but was forced to abandon the veldt he loved because of four straight years of drought. A man steeped in the writings of the poets of England, he has a poetic but inquiring spirit; and he has focused that spirit on coming to understand one of only two survivors of that drought: the aloe plant, in all its variations and species. He relates to his wife, Gladys (Kerry Shear), that as he turned his back on the abandoned farm, he could see only the thorn trees and the aloes thriving in the seared, sun-baked earth. When he came to find her, Gladys was living alone with her mother, a sick and bitter old woman whose last six years, according to her doctor, were “miraculous.” Gladys, the old woman’s caretaker, kept her darkest secrets in diaries for many years after Piet gave her a first book to write in.
At the beginning of the play, Gladys has only been back home a few months; and the two are awaiting the arrival of an old friend of Piet’s, Steve Daniels (Dante Walker), and his family. Steve was the reason that Piet joined the revolution against Apartheid; he stopped his bus in downtown Port Elizabeth to listen to Steve decry the divisive and destructive results of the regime. The two walked side-by-side past the empty bus as they protested the rise of fares on the already-segregated bus lines. It cemented their lifelong friendship, even through the recent arrest and imprisonment of Daniels as a conspirator against the regime.
Today, Piet is attempting to celebrate the return to him of both Gladys and Steve. But Gladys is growing increasingly upset; and Steve, despite the sunset and oncoming thunderstorm, is still not here. Before Steve can make his appearance, Gladys breaks, returning to the day she was “taken” from Xanadu by officials of the Port Elizabeth insane asylum. In Piet’s helpless presence, the leader of the men focused on, and proceeded to read aloud, each of her many diaries. They were removed from the house along with her. Gladys was only returned to Piet after electric shock treatment had rendered her, by official standards, quiet and harmless.
Act I tells us of the pasts of Gladys and Piet; at the end of the act, Piet is left in the gathering darkness to wait for the arrival of his guests. Act II tells Steve’s tale; he shows up hours later, alone, and shortly after their loud and boisterous reunion, they are joined by Gladys.
Director Joan Darling, who teaches acting and directing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has brought to the stage in this play a deceptively peaceful setting for a volcano of a story. Fugard has written a work that has very little action in it, but violence sweeps continuously across the stage. Each of the three characters in A Lesson from Aloes slams against the others with the history that has damaged them so deeply, from Steve’s imprisonment to the notion that Piet, who was obviously the only white man in the “conspiracy,” was the informant who turned Steve in. Darling’s vision of this play brings a man who is gentle, and worthy of a quiet retirement in his home country, a devastating double blow. Steve is moving his family to England. During this, what was to be a farewell dinner, Gladys finally asks Steve whether he believes the rumor of Piet’s role as an informant. The resulting three-way battle leaves only the many “ugly and bitter” aloe plants still untouched in the night’s heat.
Deep Dish’s own Tony Lea creates a quiet and studious man who, until now, had learned to deal with his losses. He seems content and relatively happy in his surroundings. Lea gives us a man who seems at first almost shallow in his contentment. But his dual defeats, both as a farmer and as a revolutionary, have scarred him deeply. Lea is a master of understatement, not revealing the depths of his character until he is challenged by both of his dearest relations. Kerry Shear brings a true fragility to her character; but Gladys too has an iron will, and fights to reveal a truth that neither of these men will acknowledge. Dante Walker, who returns to the Triangle after work in California, brings to Steve, a man so scarred by discrimination, a singular desperation: to be able to care for his family, to work with skilled hands, and to live a life that his children can inherit, and be proud of. In the resulting confrontation of these three disparate characters, no one but the regime is left standing.
This is a powerful and amazingly camouflaged work that starts quietly on a lovely fall afternoon, as two long-wed people await a reunion with a long-time friend. But this is a disaster waiting to happen, and this cast and crew pull off a savage coup of a play that is a damning curse on a terrible and destructive historical nightmare. This drama brings us too close to a chapter of history we dare not forget. It is an international cause that only a Civil War was able to bring to our attention, so far away across the water from this small but savage debacle happening a full century later. Civil Rights came to a head in our own country as Apartheid was fought in South Africa. These two so very different countries share more of a bond than we realize.
Deep Dish Theater Company presents A Lesson from Aloes Thursday, Oct. 25 and Nov. 1 and 8, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, Oct. 26-27 and Nov. 2-3 and 9-10, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 28 and Nov. 4, at 2 p.m.; and Wednesday Nov. 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the space beside Branching Out at the Dillard’s end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $16 ($12 students and $14 seniors), except $7 on “Cheap Dish Night”on Oct. 25th. 919/968-1515 or etix at the presenter's site. Note 1: There will be a post-play discussion following the show's and Oct. 28th performance. Deep Dish Theater Company: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/current.htm. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=1150.