Wednesday, May 30, 2018

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 74, A Review: "A Lesson From Aloes" (Hartford Stage)

By James V. Ruocco

In "A Lesson From Aloes," Athol Fugard's reflective, brilliant drama about racial oppression, survival, individual equality, guilt, hidden desires, secrets and the threat of political upheaval, the playwright crafts a life-changing character portrait of three people trapped in an obvious purgatory of uncertainty fighting for existence in a world they may or may not completely understand or escape.


Those words best describe Hartford Stage's splendid revival of Fugard's 1980 Broadway drama, which prior to its New York debut, celebrated its American premiere at New Haven's Yale Repertory Theatre.

The two-act drama, set in 1963 South Africa in the midst of the apartheid, is set at the home of Piet and Gladys Bezuidenout, a married white couple, anxiously awaiting the arrival of their dinner guests, Steve Daniels, his wife and their children. Questions of loyalty, trust, safety, independence, political unrest and freedom of expression come into view. As does, the harsh realities of exposed truths, conflicts and intrusions. 

The thrill of watching Fugard's play at Hartford Stage comes from  Darko Tresnjak's stunning directorial interpretation. Its articulation, its shifting perspectives, its microscopic exploration and dissection of three very different people and its thought-provoking verbage are addressed with keen precision by the director. It's a directional process that not only respects and honors Fugard's penetrating character portrait, but one that keeps the story, the subplots and the characters tremendously vivid and alive.

With the groundwork intricately laid by the playwright, Tresnjak masterfully crafts a production that addresses the personal and the political, the confusion and disorder of three lives on a collision course where there are no immediate answers, the lure of escape to an outside world of uncertainty and the safety of guarded home life shielded from the chaos of a country in turmoil. All of this and more allows "A Lesson From Aloes" to seduce, entice and provoke as its splendidly unravels. And finally, gets under your skin, allowing you to draw your own conclusions as the stage lights fade to black and the play deftly concludes.

"A Lesson from Aloes" also signals the near-end of Tresnjak's reign at Hartford Stage. Before leaving his position of artistic director at the end of the 2018-2019 season, he will direct "The Engagement Party" (Jan. 10-Feb. 3, 2019) and "The Flamingo Kid" (May 9-June 2, 2019). In the meantime, this play shows Tresnjak at his artistic best with a voice that is fluid, well heard and understood. And in the intimate space that is Hartford Stage, one that is uniquely profound and realized.

In the Broadway production of  "A Lesson From Aloes," the small ensemble of three were represented by James Earl Jones, Harris Yulin and Maria Tucci, three dynamic, high-powered actors with incredible chemistry, personality and insight, which, in turn, gave Fugard's apartheid drama its force, drive and complexity. At Hartford Stage, the effect is similar as Ariyon Bakare, Randall Newsome and Andrus Nichols assume the roles once played by this award-winning Broadway threesome.

James Earl Jones is a force to be reckoned with, but Ariyon Bakare stands tall and proud as Steve, Daniels, the sole guest of Piet and Gladys who joins the couple at the start of Act II. It's a very different performance from that of Jones and well it should be. For those who have seen Jones perform on stage, there is no bold, larger-than-life persona than the actor, who once voiced the character of Darth Vader in the "Star Wars" movies.
But Bakare isn't Jones. And that's a good thing. Here, the actor offers a completely different interpretation of the character. It is driven, well-balanced and grounded. It is also personable, complex and somewhat suspenseful, if only because Fugard offers just bits and pieces about the character prior to his introduction to the piece. When Steve finally appears, the actor makes all the right moves, slowly drawing us into his story using the excitement, energy and dilemma the part calls for.

Randall Newsome's Piet is wonderfully sincere, refreshing and genuine. The character's fascination with the aloe plant is both brilliant and articulate as the actor revels in the joys of cultivating and exploring the plant species and punctuating its names and varieties like a trained scholar. Like Steve, he too carries a past that is guarded and filled with secrets, which, the actor addresses and performs with commanding naturalness. He is every inch as good as Yulin was in the role.

Andrus Nichols, as Gladys, not only delivers the performance of the season but she is as outstanding as Maria Tucci was in the original Broadway production. Her portrayal of Gladys is played with infinite reservoirs of pathos, sensitivity, vulnerability, confusion and ovation worthy mental unraveling and detachment. What's exciting about the actress is watching how her character wrestles with a traumatic past that is both anguished and frightening and how her comforted world is threatened by the thought of someone curiously flipping through the pages of her private, guarded diary or how she may be forced to cope with life outside the trusty confines of her somewhat gated home.

It's a sympathetic, arresting performance that comes from within. It is also a characterization that, as envisioned by Fugard, was primarily designed to shake things up which the actress addresses "full on" with the clever, well-crafted greatness of someone trained at the Old Vic in London.

With "A Lesson From Aloes," Hartford Stage continues its winning streak of exceptional theater, which, in the last eight months has included "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Seder," and "The Age of Innocence," among others. In this go-round, the theater offers a blistering character portrait of three articulate people whose pain, anguish and argument provide a high-stakes drama of wounding intensity and bracing intelligence.

"A Lesson From Aloes" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St, Hartford, CT), now through June 10.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.

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