"A Lesson From Aloes" is a measured, powerful study of the human spirit; specifically, of an Afrikaner's blind, practically numbed determination to cling to his homeland in spite of adversities that include his wife's loss of reason. Written and directed by Athol Fugard, South Africa's preeminent playwright, it opened last night at the Playhouse.
It is a work that slowly casts a lengthening shadow across a territory nearly as bleak as Beckett until, at the final dimout, the place and its two principal characters seem engulfed in perpetual darkness.
There are just three of them: the husband, a luckless white farmer and his distrait wife who occupy the long first half, and a black friend, a former bricklayer, who joins them in the second.
We are at the modest house of Piet Bezuidenhout and his wife Gladys in an apparently white district of Port Elizabeth in 1963 (the true-life events Fugard details evidently took place that year), the action passing back and forth between garden and bedroom, mostly in the former.
Piet, who spends his days collecting and potting aloes and other spiky, hardy plants from the dry and unfertile veldt nearby, and Gladys, not long out of a mental hospital, possibly in an England she yearns for but may only imagine, are preparing to greet a black family invited for dinner. Piet and the black husband Steve had been part of a politically active dissident group recently broken up by the police, and Steve, who has only just gotten out of jail, is about to move to England with his family. Piet may also have informed on the group, though one is led to wonder why an informer should have been necessary, and since he is suspected of having done so, he and his wife have been shunned by all their other friends.
The family never arrives; just the hearty yet suspicious head of it who has bolstered his spirit with drink along the way. Piet quite understandably refuses to answer his suddenly enraged wife's accusations of Steve's question until near the close. Like Shakespeare's Cordelia, Piet "cannot heave (his) heart into (his) mouth."
Exercising masterly control, Fugard peels away layers of information and feeling, among them an account of a government raid on the house and confiscation of her diaries, an act that precipitated her breakdown. In the end, Piet, like the species of aloe he has been unable to identify, stands alone, resisting uprooting.
Although the play is less striking theatrically than the same author's remarkable twin bill, "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead" and "The Island," and disquieting in its conclusion, the character studies are fascinating. And while Piet is the most enigmatic figure, and Steve the most realistic, Gladys is the most pitiful.
The acting is strong throughout. Maria Tucci is no less than magnificent as the wife teetering between sanity and derangement, helplessly caught in an alien environment. Harris Yulin gives an admirably controlled performance as the solicitous but single-minded husband. James Earl Jones, in the showiest role, brings great vitality to the second half. Loving his native land, but loving freedom for his family more, Jones' Steve is commanding.
Fugard has staged this drama deliberately and upsparingly in a skimpy setting.
"A Lesson From Aloes" is a strange and grim play probing deep into the resilient spirit of man.
An Afrikaner is surveying his barren backyard, trying to catalogue his straggly collection of aloes - a strange shrub with thorns that has a cactus-like ability to survive a drought.
He tells his wife of the resentment he once felt towards these plants, when as a farmer he was forced from the veldt by the rainless scorch, that these odd plants survived him.
His wife responds with: "Is that the price of survival in this country? Thorns and bitterness?" That seems to be one key to Athol Fugard's thorny, bitter but immensely moving play, about his native South Africa, A Lesson From Aloes, which opened at the Playhouse Theater last night.
In the play there are two main themes - this question of survival, and also the linked issue of departure, whether it involves leaving the country itself, or, by way of madness, or even suicide, the world. There is also an underlying conflict of the naming of names - the play is obsessed with names and naming, and presumably Fugard uses this as a symbol of classification and the racial discrimination policies, known as apartheid.
The structure of the play is extremely daring. It opens with Piet, the Afrikaner farmer turned bus driver and his wife Gladys, an English South African. Piet is an old leftist, believing in black rights, and Gladys, although not political, has been made neurotic by the situation and institutionalized.
They are waiting the arrival of a old friend, Steve, a black radical who has just been released from jail. They are expecting Steve to bring his family, but a glance at the playbill will soon show the attentive that the family will not turn up and Steve will arrive alone. [Wouldn't it be helpful if we had playbills and cast lists in real life?]
They talk - chiefly with a resigned sadness that only occasionally erupts into rancor. It is a musical, but almost monotonous dialogue, a fugue for survivors. And, of course, all the time we are waiting for Steve as eagerly as we ever waited for Lefty or Godot.
It is partly a mystery play, and this is one of its enthralling aspects. Piet is shunned by all of his old friends who believe that he was the police informer betraying Steve. Was he? And will Steve turn up? Let me put you slightly out of your agony - the first act curtain falls without him. Then, at last, he arrives with the second act, playing an harmonica, slightly drunk, bringing a bottle of wine, and with boat tickets to England for his entire family in his pocket. He is going into exile. He, too, is unsure whether Piet, with his meticulous pomposity oddly combined with revolutionary fervor, is the informer.
During a long, short night, a little wine and a lot of poetry spouting, the play comes to some kind of narrative conclusion - though even that has its ambiguities. But the conflicting ideas of leaving or surviving have been battled out with jocularity but eventually to the flayed flesh.
The American premiere has staged by Lloyd Richards's Yale Repertory Theater last season, directed by Fugard himself. This has been brought intact to New York, though he has made a few cuts and changes.
With three incredibly sensitive actors, all giving what just might be the performances of their respective careers, this is one of those evenings in the theater that, if you will comprehend that quiet opening, redeemed by the perspective of the second act, just must not be missed.
The cast has taken root in the play and now lives in it. The central role of the wife goes to Maria Tucci, the play's catalyst and victim. She is fantastic at passing through states of sanity and madness in her shrill but cool curse against existence.
The most demanding role goes to Harris Yulin as Piet, who virtually never leaves the stage and hardly raises his voice. His tortured gallantry and precise decency are perfectly conveyed. Finally, as Steve, James Earl Jones careens into the play like a sudden gust of energy, marvellously and properly, switching its tone in giving yet another antic, almost comic, but certainly broken cry for the beloved country.
This is a play with food for the heart, mind and soul, and it is essentially a play first to enjoy, but then, in the private chambers of your inner self, to savor and regard.
In "A Lesson From Aloes," the playwright Athol Fugard transports the audience into a landscape of seemingly unrelieved bleakness. The year is 1963. The setting is the Port Elizabeth, South Africa, home of Piet (Harris Yulin), a middle-aged Afrikaner, and his wife, Gladys (Maria Tucci). This couple's lives are as threadbare as their home. Piet, an ex-bus driver who once helped fight the failed antiapartheid revolution, has now retreated into a private botanical hobby: he collects different varieties of aloes, an ugly, thorn-covered shrub. Gladys, recently released from a mental hospital, is bitter and withdrawn. There's no love, no money, no fresh air. Old political friends, silenced by government intimidation, have vanished from sight. As Gladys puts it, the end of the world may already be at hand.
But Gladys is wrong. In "A Lesson From Aloes," Mr. Fugard once again reveals his remarkable talent for tracking down the pulsebeat of life in a world that even God seems to have abandoned. In the literal sense, that world is the misbegotten land of South Africa, but such are the power and truth of Mr. Fugard's writing that his best plays transcend even the political tragedy of his native country. "Aloes" is one of his best plays, maybe his very best. It arrived in full, staggering force at the Playhouse last night, in an absolutely perfect production directed by the author.
Piet and Gladys are not the only characters of the evening. In Act II, the couple is paid a visit by Steve (James Earl Jones), a charismatic political comrade of Piet's from the old days. Outwardly, Mr. Fugard's three South Africans seem to be strikingly different from one another. Piet is a calm, often abstracted man who likes to recite English poetry. The pasty-faced Gladys is high-strung to the point of hysteria. Steve is a warm and boisterous figure, bubbling over with hearty laughter and savage angers. Nonetheless, the three have a lot in common. Like the thorny aloe, they all have been cruelly warped by their homeland - and yet they all somehow find the means to survive.
"A Lesson From Aloes" is the story of how these characters got to where they are now and how they chose their respective paths to survival. It's not a pleasant tale. Steve, recently released from jail, is moving his family to England, leaving his life and home behind "like a pile of rubbish." Gladys, her spirit forever destroyed by a violent police raid, is eager to enter the hell of total madness. She tells Steve: "They've burnt my brain as brown as yours." Piet clings to a stubborn idealism: "Social injustice is manmade and can be unmade by men." But there are no longer any people or evidence to support his view.
Exile, madness, utter loneliness - these are the only alternatives Mr. Fugard's characters have. What makes "Aloes" so moving is the playwright's insistence on the heroism and integrity of these harsh choices. Short of Beckett, it's hard to think of a contemporary playwright who so relentlessly and unsentimentally tracks down humanity in the midst of apocalypse. And, like Beckett, Mr. Fugard sets forth his drama in spare, direct, at times even witty dialogue.
If there's anything wrong with his plays, it's a slight tendency to start slowly in his first acts and to spell out his metaphors. Act I of "Aloes" is not immune to these flaws - it feels about 10 minutes too long. But that's a very small price to pay, given what follows. When Mr. Jones arrives in Act II for an ostensibly celebratory farewell, Mr. Fugard plunges through layer after layer of his characters' inner darkness - only to arrive, miraculously, at a climax that floods the theater with light.
At the Playhouse, it's all but impossible to separate the actors from the play. It doesn't detract from Miss Tucci's and Mr. Jones's achievements to say that Mr. Yulin dominates the evening. His is the quietest character; in a way Piet is defined by the peaceful silence that surrounds him. Even when his old friend Steve accuses him unjustly of political hypocrisy (and worse) or his wife assaults him in a fit of viciousness, he has "nothing to say." When Piet does talk - of his plants or the salad days of his political passion - Mr. Yulin shows us the kind, humorful man he still is. Nor is he at all sanctimonious when he uselessly attempts to persuade the others that the antiapartheid cause still lives. Mr. Yulin's idealism, like Mr. Fugard's, is expressed as simple dignity; it's a state of grace.
Miss Tucci is rending as Gladys, a woman torn by centrifugal forces. In Act I she clings to her last companion, her diary, as if holding on to the book might prevent her from flying apart. In Act II, Gladys's fluttery neuroticism gives way to a harrowing eruption of nihilistic bile. Mr. Jones is no less commanding in the smaller role of Steve. A high-spirited, playful figure at first, he is every bit the magnetic, inspirational leader Piet has advertised him to be. Once the wine wears off and his prison memories flood back, Mr. Jones's rakish slouch becomes the whipped yet unbowed countenance of a man who has only narrowly escaped his torturers.
The performances alone do not sum up Mr. Fugard's direction. With the help of Michael H. Yeargan's sad, dusty set and William Armstrong's sun-baked lighting, the playwright has also filled "Aloes" with poignant images: Steve ripping up his beloved father's photograph to break with his past, or Piet mechanically setting a festive picnic table in a doomed effort to dispel his gloom. The most powerful image, perhaps, is the last: a tableau of the deserted Piet sitting by himself, contemplating his prized aloe. It's a simple moment, yet at once shattering and uplifting. In "A Lesson From Aloes," Mr. Fugard summons up the full agony and triumph of people who have lost everything except the gift of staying alive.