A Lesson from Aloes – Review by Geary Danihy

Do you want to hear a story? Make that stories? Well, if you do, then “A Lesson from Aloes,” currently on the boards at Hartford Stage, is the play for you, for there are stories galore. Here’s the problem (if there is one) – stories deal with what’s already happened, i.e., what’s in the past, and although much of modern theater has the past haunting the present, it should function as a backdrop to what happens on the stage in the present – think Stella’s past in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and how it drives the “present’ action. Unfortunately, there’s very little “present” in this play by Athol Fugard. Save for moments in the second act, the dialogue is essentially exposition, so much so that you may nod off a bit as the characters tell the audience “what happened” in the past.

As directed by Darko Tresnjak, the play does have a lot of physical movement, with actors well-balanced stage left or right, but there are many moments when one (or then two) of the characters must simply stand or sit and listen (rarely reacting) to another character’s dialogue, which often consists of little more than “this happened and then this happened.”

The play is set in South Africa in the early 1960s, when protests against apartheid were rising. To handle the protests, the South African government, mainly via the police, jailed many protestors and vigorously investigated those associated in any way with the protests. Hence, we have Piet (Randall Newsome), an Afrikaner who, a failed farmer, allies himself with Steve (Ariyon Bakare) in the protests, much to the dismay of Piet’s wife Gladys (Andrus Nichols). We learn (again, in a “this once happened” moment) that the police raided Piet’s house and took, among other things, Gladys’s diaries. The event sent Gladys, who feels violated, over the edge and she has apparently been in and out of treatment (including, again apparently, electric shock therapy) for some time.

So, what’s the deal with the “aloes” in the title and what lesson is to be learned from them? Well, you may have to pay very close attention to be able to answer these questions. Piet, now living a somewhat isolated life, has become fixated on aloe plants, desperate to collect and learn the names of the various succulents. He mentions that these plants can often survive where others wither and die in a hostile environment. Since all three characters are having their various problems surviving in the South African environment, the plants can be seen as symbolic, although what “lesson” they offer remains to be seen. Adapt and survive at any cost? Or perhaps be transplanted? Your call on this.

Each of the three characters is given numerous set-piece moments to reflect and, at times, revolt. Most effective is Nichols, whose character drifts in and out of reality, and there are moments when she shoots sparks out into the audience. As written, Piet is a character very much under control of his emotions, so Newsome’s performance is, perforce, a bit restrained. Then there is Bakare, who must present a conflicted character and in doing so sometimes slips into histrionics.

Given that most of the play deals with the past, and what has happened in the past is a bit hazy, there’s really no resolution. There are accusations of betrayal that are left essentially unresolved, and motivations often seem somewhat cloudy, especially so in the second act when Gladys, in Trump-like fashion, accuses and then retracts the accusation – apparently she just wanted to roil the waters (Why? Well, she’s sick, I guess).

In watching “A Lesson from Aloes,” you get the feeling that this play is important, so you keep watching, but the play, at least for one audience member, never goes beyond the “watch this because it’s important” stage. Given that almost all of what has happened to these three characters has occurred before the curtain rises, you don’t really have much opportunity to engage in what is happening NOW.

“A Lesson from Aloes” runs through June 10. For tickets or more information call 860-520-7125 or go to www.hartfordstage.org.

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