For many in America, the struggles over apartheid in South Africa may seem like a story that’s come to an end. But in the work of Athol Fugard, which is seldom seen on local stages, we can chart the progress of that story and how it affected the lives of not only unnamed millions, but of very specific individuals, and realize once more that any form of government oppression must be resisted—often at heavy cost.
The individuals in A Lesson from Aloes, now onstage in a Banyan Theater Company production, are just three: Piet, Gladys and Steve. The play, first produced in the late 1970s but set in 1963 in the town of Port Elizabeth in South Africa, opens with Afrikaner Piet (Peter Thomasson) trying to classify a new aloe he has discovered. It’s a hobby and something more in Fugard’s play; anyone in South Africa at that time would have known the strict government system that classified people based on the color of their skins and then placed them in certain areas, with restrictions and limitations upon their lives.
Piet was a farmer who lost his farm to drought and lost much of his purpose in life, too, until he met up with Steve (Ron Bobb-Semple), a “colored” man in the parlance of the time, who has been involved in the protest movement against the government. Piet had found a connection with Steve and a reason to care about something, even though his wife, Gladys (Sara Morsey), could not believe as he did in political causes; of English descent, she would rather leave South Africa than try to reform it or survive in it.
The three come together one evening at Piet and Gladys’ home to wish Steve farewell; he has been released from jail and is headed to England. But we know there are tensions and secrets here even before we learn that Steve was arrested because of an informer, who may or may not have been Piet. Gladys is both fragile and volatile; she has faced her own torments at the hands of policemen who raided her home and seized her personal diaries, sending her into a tailspin that resulted in a long stay at a mental hospital. Ever since, her interactions with Piet have been tentative, and the arrival of Steve sets off an explosion that wrecks any hope of a happy resolution.
Some theatergoers may find parts of Act I rather slow going; there’s a good deal of talk and anticipation, while at the same time many things are left unsaid. But the cast, under the capable direction of Don Walker, is attuned to one another and to Fugard’s characters. Thomasson is a known quantity to Banyan audiences, and he gains our sympathy for Piet, who’s trying, like his aloes, to thrive in a harsh environment. Morsey and Bobb-Semple are newcomers, and both give strong, varied performances as people whose wellbeing has been shattered. In the end, it’s a powerful play.
A Lesson from Aloes continues through July 15 at the Cook Theatre; for tickets call 351-2808 or go to banyantheatercompany.com.