Friday, June 8, 2018

"A Lesson from Aloes"

A Lesson from Aloes
Athol Fugard

Wendy vanden Heuvel & Victor Talmadge
The early 1960s in South Africa was a time of increasing police raids, township riots and brutal police reactions as well as unfair trials and undeserved executions.  At the same time, the world began to awaken enough to the horrors of apartheid to declare more and more boycotts and to debate at the United Nations how to deal with a society where the native, majority blacks were treated as non-human beings by the white minority leaders. 

It is into this atmosphere of fear and frustration that Athol Fugard places his A Lesson from Aloes, now in a stunningly crafted production by Weathervane Productions at Z Below.  Premiering in 1980 when apartheid was still the law but set in 1963 in the home of white Afrikaners, Piet and Gladys Benzuidenhout, A Lesson from Aloes focuses on a couple isolated in the island of their own abode for reasons to become clearer in the play’s progression but reasons originating from Piet’s history of anti-apartheid activism.  We meet Piet tending his outdoor garden of various aloe plants, a hobby he has taken up in only the past six months, but whose several dozen specimens seem now to be the main focus of his solitary life. 

As his wife watches with mixed amusement and boredom, Piet tries desperately to identify a newcomer to his mini-forest of thorned, puffy plants – stubborn, sturdy survivors in the harsh South African environment of sand, heat, and drought ... much like the plants’ caregiver himself.  As he mutters about his unnamed friend, Gladys asks with a dimpled smile but eyes a bit sad, “Are you talking to me or to your aloe ... I’m never sure these days.”  Coupled with another remark made with huge sigh by Gladys that time is “passing so slowly these days,” hints begin to mount that life is a struggle not only for these plants, but for the inhabitants of this abode – or at least for the observing, restless Gladys.  “God has not planted us in a tin pan” (like Piet has his aloes).  “I want to live this life, not just survive,” she says with both some despair and some grit of determination.

Wendy vanden Heuvel & Victor Talmadge
But there is also some excitement in the air on this particular day as the sun’s rays start their colorful journey to set (beautifully documented through the projections design of Frédéric O. Boulay).  After six months of no visitors, the couple is expecting Piet’s best friend, Steve Daniels, to come for dinner with his wife and four kids (one, the godson of Piet).  Preparations for an al fresco supper in the open patio floored by sand ignite some spark and playfulness between the couple as they even dance in between setting a festive table.  With gusto, the poem-quoting Piet searches for just the right Holmes, Dickens, or Blake quote for the evening’s toast to welcome their guests.

A contagious energy and enthusiasm for life permeates Victor Talmadge’s Piet as we get to know him in the opening minutes of the play.  He literally bounces around the outdoor, desert setting (one meticulously adorned by scenic designer Deb O), with Piet having a spry, almost boy-like nature that belies his evident years of sixty-plus. 

The contrast between his zeal and the more sedate, cautious Gladys becomes more and more stark, especially when she retreats to the adjoining bedroom where the right hand of Wendy vanden Heuvel tremors ever so slightly as she looks with some claustrophobic anxiety at the four walls around her.  Sitting at her desk to stare at a mirror with a look of some inside fear, she unlocks a drawer to take out a red leather diary and frantically to look for somewhere else to hide it.  We realize that existence in their home of Algoa Park, Port Elizabeth is for at Gladys not a safe, welcome haven – for reasons we will learn.

Tensions in the household mount as the shadows lengthen and scattered wall lights take over the duty of the parting sun’s rays (thanks to the outstanding lighting design of York Kennedy).  The Daniels family has not yet arrived as expected, with Gladys becoming ever more upset, edgy, and prone to strike with a surprising venom at a still calm, patiently waiting Piet. 

When Piet reveals that this is actually the last time they will see Steve and his family because his former activist partner (who has just been released from six months in jail after being betrayed by some informer), are immigrating to England, Gladys is full of longing envy, expressing her own desire to leave the country.  That wish is in clear opposition to the obvious roots that Piet has planted in the country’s troubled soil, a fact that seems tonight to grate ever more on Gladys as each minute passes.

More reasons emerge for Gladys’ nervous anxiety and her ever-more-pointed jabs at the mild-mannered, mostly non-responding Piet (with both Ms. vanden Heuvel and Mr. Talmadge continuing to provide memorable performances).  A point-blank question dealing with Steve’s arrest by a now emboldened Gladys to her quietly staring husband electrifies the scene just as darkness fully sets in. 

Adrian Roberts & Victor Talmadge
But when Steve (Adrian Roberts) finally arrives late in evening (sans family), the mood once again shifts to a joyful reunion and a reenactment by the two friends of a past poetry slam, complete with well-rehearsed actions that clearly they have done many times during nights together over bottles of wine.  That reprise from the evening’s earlier mounting atmosphere of agitation is only brief, as suspicions and accusations – once unspoken – now spill forth from unlikely places, pitting husband and wife as well as friend and friend against each other.  The repercussions of the unsuccessful battles that these two friends once fought for justice has scarred all three in different ways, and each is about to seek a final escape route from this land they love so much – even if that flight is simply into a meager, dry garden of aloes.

Adrian Roberts, Wendy vanden Heuvel & Victor Talmadge
Veteran director Timothy Near guides with astute grace, nuanced gift, and emotional glow this equally veteran and much-talented cast of three.  She allows the rich script and the astounding production elements of set, lighting, costume (Maggi Yule), and sound (Cliff Caruthers) to work hand-in-hand with the ever-arresting spoken and silent expressions of this cast, resulting in a production highly engaging, challenging, and moving.  Its two hours (plus intermission) pass without notice of time as we watch the implications that living in a country where freedom is denied has on both the oppressed minority and on the supposedly free majority – two of the latter who quite evidently suffer their own differing imprisonments of mind and soul. 

Athol Fugard does not let us forget that however bad it is for the Afrikaner sympathizer, friend, and activist, that person’s skin in the end is still white – something Steve, no matter how much his native South African means to him, cannot ever have as a possible refuge.  The power of skin color is a reality, even post-Apartheid, that makes this play still strikingly relevant – even and especially in our own current country.  Not only has Weathervane Productions brought us a play that instructs us of a time now past and the effects those days had on its inhabitants of a land far away, the choice to stage Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes bears its own harsh timeliness.  How can we not draw comparisons to the fact that every day those with darker skins are imprisoned both in our inner cities and at our borders at alarming rates in our own land of the so-called free?

Rating: 5 E

A Lesson from Aloes continues through June 29, 2018, staged by Weathervane Productions at Z Below, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photos by David Allen

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