“A Lesson from Aloes”
Hartford Stage is currently presenting a blistering revival of Athol Fugard’s incisive play, “A Lesson from Aloes.” Set in South Africa, in 1963, “A Lesson from Aloes” concerns the intended dinner party of Piet and Gladys, a middle-aged, Caucasian couple, at their modest home, and essentially what happens as they wait for company (including Piet’s close friend Steve) to arrive. Director Darko Tresnjak has done a great job in staging this production and he has a superb trio of actors who all give multi-layered performances. Politics enters into the realm of the play, as it seeps in as the plot unfolds slowly, only gradually letting the audience know exactly what is at stake for all the characters.
The title of the play, “A Lesson from Aloes,” is absolutely fitting for this show, because Athol Fugard’s writing is as prickly as any of the aloes, the plants that Piet collects, and the revelations that are uncovered can pierce like a knife. On Tim Mackabee’s expansive, yet almost skeletal set, time seems to hang in the balance for the characters, with the threat of arguments and outbursts ready to erupt at any given moment. “A Lesson from Aloes” at Hartford Stage can certainly be recommended for the potent atmosphere that has been conjured up, as well as to see all three actors giving uniformly fine performances.
The first image that one sees in this show is Piet (played by the excellent Randall Newsome) tending to his collection of aloes. Beyond their prickly nature, the aloes can also be seen as a kind of symbol of the play: these plants are able to thrive with just a minimum of water and under intense sun and heat. It is obvious from the start that Piet and his wife Gladys, portrayed with a powerful force by Andrus Nichols, have been through a great deal in their recent past, and that sense of foreboding lingers throughout the production.
Not to give too much more of the plot away, but the third character, Steve (the effective Ariyon Bakare), who is African American, doesn’t arrive until the play’s second half, and the way that the three actors interact can sometimes become explosive. Athol Fugard’s play is really about finding out what exists under the many layers that the characters have armed themselves with in order to survive. Many secrets (none to be mentioned here) pop up almost like hand grenades, and the playwright arms the people in “A Lesson from Aloes” with just the precise amount of words to convey each new revelation.
Darko Tresjnak is entirely sensitive to the work of the playwright and he has orchestrated a production that brings to mind the hothouse environment of a Tennesse Williams play, such as “The Night of the Iguana.” The director is also extraordinarily lucky to have just the right actors at his disposal to give maximum effect and nuance to Fugard’s words, which often have the ability to shake one to the core.
Randall Newsome is extremely good as Piet, and it is evident right from the beginning that there is much brewing under this character’s initially calm demeanor. Ariyon Bakare matches his costar perfectly and, although his stage time is the briefest of the three actors onstage, he certainly makes quite an impression in the show.
And then there is Andrus Nichols as Gladys, who seems to dominate the action even when she is on the outskirts of a scene. Nichols has endowed her character with a mixture of wry humor and gradually consuming anger that renders her performance absolutely hypnotic. Just to watch her fold napkins for the dinner party or to pour herself a glass of sherry is a lesson in bringing danger to the surface, without even saying a word.
It should be mentioned that “A Lesson from Aloes” at Hartford Stage does contain its share of humor, but the laughs, at times, seem to trail off in an air of futility. In addition to the effective scenic design, Blair Gulledge’s costumes feel absolutely right, and Matthew Richards’ lighting is atmospheric, though it can also cut like a razor. With the combination of Darko Tresnjak’s direction and his trio of ideal performers, “A Lesson of Aloes” proves to be quite an evening of theatre, and one that is almost certain to remain with a viewer long after the play has ended.
“A Lesson from Aloes” continues performances at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through June 10, 2018. For tickets, please visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.
Photo: (L-R): Randall Newsome and Andrus Nichols
Photo by T. Charles Erickson