A Lesson from Aloes – Review by Tom Holehan

Hartford Stage is concluding their season with a revival of Athol Fugard’s critically acclaimed play from 1980, “A Lesson from Aloes”. The drama replaces the previously announced Fugard revival of “Statements After an Arrest Under the Immortality Act”. Any chance to see the works of the great playwright by a major theatre company is of interest even in a disappointing production like this one.

Set in 1963 in a modest home in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, “A Lesson from Aloes”, like many Fugard works, deals with the country’s violent anti-Apartheid movement. The historical context of this play is the crackdown by the apartheid government on political expression after the boycotts and rallies of 1963, when many non-white communities resisted the implementation of higher bus fares.

As the play begins white couple Piet (Randall Newsome) and Gladys (Andrus Nichols), whose marriage is fraught with tension and unresolved conflict, are awaiting the arrival of Steve (Ariyon Bakare), a black man recently released from jail for “subversive activities”. Steve and Piet worked together against the government policies, but there is a cloud hanging over their friendship. It appears that Piet may have been an informant who was actually responsible for Steve’s incarceration. Fugard brings these people and their varying motivations together and, under Darko Tresnjak’s skillful direction, a dangerous tango for three evolves as each character moves, thrusts, spars and retreats.

The actors are all praiseworthy though a not insignificant problem lies with the men and their use of the tricky South African accent. Since the character of Gladys is British-born, Ms. Nichols has no trouble being understood here, but both Bakare and Newsome are using forms of the South African English of the Afrikaner (dialect coach is Ben Furey) and it is often hard to comprehend what they are saying especially when voices are raised. The inability to grasp the specific issues and crucial message of the play does it a disservice and the climax, while fiercely played by the company, still left me strangely unmoved. By final curtain the play’s “lesson” seems to evaporate in the process.

Tim Mackabee’s scenic design, an expansive clapboard bedroom and patio, is impressive but really far too large for such an intimate drama. Matthew Richards’ lighting design establishes lovely shades of dusk for the play’s second act and Jane Shaw’s haunting sound design of chirping crickets and barking dogs brings an undertow of appropriate menace to the proceedings.

The original “A Lesson from Aloes” featured Maria Tucci, James Earl Jones and Harris Yulin in a production directed by Fugard. It ran only a few months on Broadway but still earned A Tony Award nomination for “Best Play”. The Hartford rendering is not without its problems, but we are still reminded that Fugard remains a playwright of grave importance and stunning insight.

“A Lesson from Aloes” continues at Hartford Stage through June 10, 2018. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at: 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.