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T. Charles Erickson
Randall Newsome, Ariyon Bakare and Andrus Nichols in the Hartford Stage production of 'A Lesson From Aloes.'

THEATRE REVIEW: ‘A Lesson From Aloes’ at Hartford Stage, subtle and powerful

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By Tuesday, May 29, 2018 Arts & Entertainment

Randall Newsome and Ariyon Bakare in the Hartford Stage production of ‘A Lesson From Aloes.’ Photo: T. Charles Erickson

A Lesson From Aloes
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

If a great play is defined as the dramatization of private, internalized conflict both among and within characters where that conflict is both informed by and reflective of their public, external environment, Athol Fugard’s “A Lesson From Aloes,” first performed at Yale Rep in 1978, qualifies and then some. And, under the impeccable direction of Darko Tresnjak with a superb cast, there might not be a finer production than what is poignantly achieved at the Hartford Stage.

It’s 1963 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, at the height of apartheid. Piet, an Afrikaaner who migrated to the city after having lost his family farm to drought and earned a living as bus driver, tends his aloe collection in his tiny backyard. He’s observed by his wife, Gladys, of British colonial descent and recovering from time at a mental institution, who frets over hosting an evening dinner. Their guest will be Steve, a Black South African, recently released from prison for political resistance, with whom Piet was involved in the anti-apartheid cause. Steve is immigrating with his family to England.

Act 1 between Piet and Gladys is a remarkable dissection of loss. For Piet, it’s not only his farm but also his sense of purpose, his commitment to the cause that Steve introduced him to. For Gladys, it’s not only the episodic loss of mental stability, but also the loss of her diaries in a police raid when Piet became investigated by the state. Like aloes in harsh terrain, they as individuals and as a couple struggle for survival. Gladys’ resentments run deep: she blames Piet and his political activism for the invasion of her privacy. When Steve arrives in Act 2, Piet and Steve’s bond of loyalty and friendship is challenged when Gladys acts out with uncontrollable, cruel passive-aggression.

Andrus Nichols in the Hartford Stage production of ‘A Lesson From Aloes.’ Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Fugard’s drama is exactly character-driven, and each performance perfectly nuanced: Andrus Nichols as Gladys, Randall Newsome as Piet and Ariyon Bakare as Steve. Kudos to dialect coach Ben Furey: Piet sounds like an Afrikaaner, Gladys clearly is of British descent and Steve’s English is informed by his native language. Jane Shaw’s sound design of distant traffic and barking dogs suggests isolation. Matthew Richards’ lighting design tracks the slow, inevitable crawl of a hot afternoon sun transforming to simmering dark.

Director Tresnjak orchestrates Fugard’s piece of time, piece of earth with a steady, invisible hand, allowing the play’s timelessness and universality speak for itself. The outside world is both cause and effect. How do we respond? Do we or does the world define that response? What are the costs to fight or flight, to survive? These questions are seldom poised as subtly or as powerfully as they are in “A Lesson From Aloes” at Hartford Stage — simply marvelous theatre.

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A Lesson From Aloes plays at the Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford, Connecticut, through Sunday, June 10. For tickets and information, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (860) 527-5151 or go online to hartfordstage.org.


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