Review: "A Lesson from Aloes" at Hartford Stage

Tara Kennedy

  • Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

“[Aloes are] distinguished above all else for their inordinate capacity for survival in the harshest of possible environments.” -Athol Fugard, playwright

Hartford Stage’s final offering for its 2017/18 season, A Lesson from Aloes by Athol Fugard, has a setting that is at once dated and timely: during Apartheid in South Africa. For those unfamiliar with Apartheid, it was a legal system instituted after World War II to suppress nonwhite citizens of South Africa; think of it as a combination of the Jim Crow laws against the Blacks in America’s southern states and the Nuremburg laws against the Jews in Germany. It was an oppressive, extreme form of racism and social injustice, finally lifted in 1994, after negotiations following the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990.

The play takes place in 1963 during the height of political violence by the South African government against anti-Apartheid movements. The show focuses on one couple, Piet (Randall Newsome) and Gladys (Andrus Nichols), who are to host a dinner party that evening for the family of Piet’s comrade-in-arms, Steve (Ariyon Bakare). There is awkwardness between the couple: Piet, having joined the anti-Apartheid movement after witnessing a protest, has made the couple a target for government suspicion. He spends his spare time identifying and collecting aloe plants. Gladys recently returned from an extended stay away due to a mental breakdown, spurred by a government invasion of their home.  Their friends seem to have shunned them, with Piet being under suspicion of betraying Steve to the South African authorities, leading Steve and his family to plan to flee to England. When Steve arrives without the rest of his family for the party, it is clear that Steve has his doubts about Piet’s allegiance, especially when Gladys tests Steve’s loyalty.

 Ariyon Bakare (front), Randall Newsome and Andrus Nichols (T. Charles Erickson)

Ariyon Bakare (front), Randall Newsome and Andrus Nichols (T. Charles Erickson)

Much of the first act is an introduction to Piet and Gladys’ relationship, which does tend to crawl along a bit, but it does pick up toward the end of the first act. The characters are tremendously complex, and all three actors do an excellent job with their portrayals of these deeply layered characters. I felt that Ms. Nichols had the most difficult depiction, and she was especially masterful in her portrait of a frustrated, deeply wounded woman. Their accents are as involved as their characters, which are a study within themselves. In the program, there is an interview with dialect coach, Ben Furey, which talks about the different accents: Piet’s South African English Afrikaaner; Gladys’ British Colonial; and Steve’s Black South African English, which is a distinct combination of British English of the Cape and Afrikaans. These distinctive, class-distinguishing accents create an additional layer of tension between the three people. Set design by Tim Mackabee is stunningly organic, capturing the essence and color of bamboo and aloe. Jane Shaw’s sound design adds to the overall natural atmosphere of the set.

Luckily, one doesn’t need to be well-versed in Apartheid history to appreciate this show. It is apparent why Mr. Tresnjak chose this piece to close their season: With the Black Lives Matter movement and our country being more polarized than ever, it is important to remind American audiences what lessons we may learn from others’ prejudices.