Globally, it’s 1963 in South Africa, in the midst of the Apartheid, and also the same year as the Rivonia Trial. This is the event in which ten leaders of the African National Congress (including Nelson Mandela) were tried for 221 acts of sabotage to overthrow the apartheid system.
Privately however, Gladys and Piet Bezuidenout are alone in their small bedroom. They discuss fear in South Africa, and Piet admits he too is frightened. Gladys only smiles and as she looks back at him says, “Watching you with your aloes, quoting your poetry… in spite of all that has happened, you’ve still got your whole world intact. You seem very safe to me.”
Written by Athol Fugard and directed by Laura Giannarelli, A Lesson from Aloes follows married couple Gladys and Piet Bezuidenout (Laura Russell and David Dubov) as they wait for the arrival of their dinner guests – Steve Daniels (Addison Switzer) and his family. Over the course of this long afternoon, the audience learns of the conflicts not only outside involving the apartheid, but also between the couple. Who can you trust? With whom does your loyalty lie, and is anyone really safe from the watchful eyes of the government? As the Bezuidenouts try harder to put up a façade of complete peace and easiness within the home, more secrets rise to the surface, putting all loyalties into question with Daniels finally arrives on the scene.
Fugards’ play masterfully explores the relationship between the personal and the political. Like the moment described above between Gladys and Piet, there is a thin line between the realities of the outside conflicts and the perceived “safety” within the home. Piet has created a world of comfort for his wife, but throughout the play, we see constant obstacles pushing against his goal that cause that line to become thinner and thinner until truths finally come out. Fugard creates a wonderful example of how it is impossible to shield personal life from the political, and though we may try to fight its intrusion, sooner or later the harsh realities will find their way through.
Giannarelli utilized this theme in her production, beginning with the stage design. With the help of Set Designer Jack Sbarbori, the artistic team created a detailed two-layer design. In the forestage, we had the Bezuidenout backyard. Behind the space full of outdoor furniture, Sbarbori created the bedroom. With a vanity mirror and a floral bed comforter, the room mirrored Piet’s efforts to create the warm, comfortable world for his wife.
With the bedroom immediately behind the backyard, there was some confusion and distraction when scenes were occurring in both locations. For example, when Steve and Piet were in the backyard having their own conversation, Gladys was sitting on the bed, lost in her thoughts and staring straight ahead. Without even some form of lighting to differentiate between the two scenes, I found myself unsure of where to look.
On the other hand, the setup also helped to emphasize the conflict between the personal and the political. First, the entire stage represented the couple’s home, with a gate off to the side that created an exit into the outside world. The intense detail of their home highlighted the idea that all of their efforts, particularly that of Piet, went into building a life for them within the closed gates.
In addition, the two layers in the design created another level within the personal. There is a divide between the outside world and that of Piet and Gladys, but there is yet another boundary between the inside of their home and the outside. Two scenes could occur at the same time in the two locations and those in the backyard would have no idea of what was going on in the bedroom, and vise versa. Sbarbori emphasizes the idea that the spheres in our lives are all connected – political and personal, public and private. Those who are outside are never sure if the character in the bedroom can hear their conversation, and the character in the bedroom never knows when another might barge in.
The small ensemble of three had a strong sense of chemistry. Russell created a complex character within Gladys Bezuidenhout. The woman is wrestling with a traumatic experience from years before, and over the course of the play, we find there are small triggers that continue to pop up. Russell played the extreme, traumatized sides well, and I felt for her as she tried to find a sense of comfort within a world she no longer trusts.
Switzler also brought the needed complexity to Steve Daniels. The character carries a sense of suspense, as he is the guest we are waiting for at the beginning of the play. Switzler entered the stage with the perfect amount of excitement and energy, though also with a dark side. I found myself unsure of whether or not I could trust him, and if he was hiding an important secret that would give us his real reasoning for joining the couple for dinner.
Finally Dubov’s Piet Bezuidenout was full of sincerity. He clearly cared so deeply for his wife, and in a story full of secrets and lies, it was refreshing to have that side of the character that felt genuine. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the character is his fixation on aloe plants, and Dubov highlighted that element in his portrayal. The character collects these plants as a way to include one aspect of his life that is always the same. The continuity of this physical object is important to him, and Dubov brought that complexity to life in his strong desire to block out the challenges of the outside world.
Thought-provoking and dramatic, A Lesson From Aloes will remain on your mind for days. Athol Fugard creates a story full of tension and heartbreak that opens a window into how we live and interact with the world around us.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with an intermission.
A Lesson From Aloes plays through May 29, 2016 at Quotidian Theatre Company performing at the Writer’s Center – 4508 Walsh Street, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006, Extension 1, or purchase them online.