BWW Review: A LESSON FROM ALOES at Hartford Stage
There are few things that can impact relationships, families and communities as significantly as politics. Often one of the topics many consider off-limits for casual gatherings, political discourse has a tendency to divide groups along ideological lines and can make for a tense discussion. And in today's world of political extremes, this reality is as evident as ever. It is along these lines that these realities come to life in vivid tableau in Athol Fugard's A LESSON FROM ALOES, the closing production of Hartford Stage's 2017-18 season.
A LESSON FROM ALOES, considered by many to be a masterpiece, is a deep character study of three people in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1963 during the height of Apartheid - Piet (Randall Newsome), the lonely member of the anti-Apartheid resistance, his slightly unstable wife, Gladys (Andrus Nichols) and their old friend Steve (Ariyon Bakare) who has come for dinner on the eve of his exile to England. Over the course of the evening, the audience is given a peek into what is a very isolated existence for Piet and Gladys, as they prepare for the arrival of Steve and his family to dinner (the couple never have visitors as they have been shunned by former comrades). We are introduced to Piet's hobby of collected and cataloguing native aloe plants, much to Gladys' frustration, and soon learn of Gladys' recent return from an absence that is not fully described until late into the play. But the real drama of the evening comes when Steve finally arrives for dinner and old wounds (and joys) as well as perceived betrayals are laid bare. By the end of the evening, the audience understands how these three individuals who have been broken in significant (yet, very different ways) are just like the aloes of the title - forced to be resilient in a bitter, harsh, and unforgiving environment.
The three actors that make up the cast of Hartford Stage's production of A LESSON FROM ALOES each bring a strength and powerful portrayal to their roles. As Piet, Randall Newsome is focused (and borderline obsessed) with understanding his new hobby (the aloes) as well as maintaining a rose-colored sense of his life - both his current situation as well as his time in the anti-Apartheid movement. Mr. Newsome conveys subtle defeat but with a sense of optimism that makes one admire his strength, yet pity his circumstances. Andrus Nichols' portrayal of the slightly unstable Gladys is quite nuanced, bouncing back and forth between paranoid and broken victim and the consummate hostess. Her real plight is revealed in the second act, in a powerful and emotionally moving scene that Ms. Nichols delivers with grace and passion. Finally, Mr. Bakare's Steve is a broken man who is determined to see the positive that might soon come out of his troubled past. His confrontation of his old friend is heartbreaking and exhilarating.
Hartford Stage Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak does a brilliant job directing A LESSON FROM ALOES, delivering a powerfully-human history lesson through Fugard's words and the three actors' performances. Tim Mackabee's set punctuates the isolation and desperation of Gladys and Piet's homestead, and is brilliantly illuminated by Matthew Richards' lighting design. Blair Gulledge's costumes are simple, yet effective, and Jane Shaw's sound design creates a sense of ambiance and seclusion. Ben Furey's dialect coaching is also worth calling out with three very distinct yet, challenging accents for the three actors (including the challenging Afrikaans dialect).
Overall, A LESSON FROM ALOES is a beautiful, yet harrowing and powerful story of the harsh choices made by three characters impacted in very different, yet significant ways by the political realities of Apartheid. As author Athol Fugard writes the aloe is "one of South Africa's most powerful, beautiful and celebratory symbols. It survives out there in the wild when everything else is dried. At the end of one of our terrible recurrent droughts, the aloe is still there." However the aloe, when broken can also be a powerful balm to bring healing and relief, something Piet, Gladys and Steve try so desperately to achieve.
A LESSON FROM ALOES runs at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through June 10. Hartford Stage is located at 50 Church Street, Hartford, CT 06103. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Weekly schedules vary. For tickets or for more information call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.