In A Lesson from Aloes, playwright Athol Fugard explores the darkness surrounding lives lived under South Africa's repressive apartheid government in the early 1960s. For someone who steps out of line, the penalties are clear. But in the end, even apolitical observers can't escape the pressures of a tyrannical system.
The play opens in the late afternoon in a dry, dusty backyard. Piet and Gladys Bezuidenhout (John Steinkamp and Gretchen Corbett) await the arrival of their old friend Steve Daniels (Kevin Jones) and his family. Steve, a black man, has recently been released from prison for violating apartheid's restrictions. For reasons that are revealed over the course of the play, Piet and Gladys have been isolated from their friends for quite some time, and there's a palpable tension surrounding Steve's impending visit.
Battle weary and bone tired, the characters in A Lesson from Aloes are middle-aged idealists struggling to hang on to what little fight they've got left. They spend most of their time talking around issues instead of about them, and whenever someone does manage to speak a note of truth, old wounds are opened and rubbed newly raw.
The lesson is clear before the play even begins: Aloe is a tough, cactus-like plant that has evolved to survive in the harshest of conditions. And in 1960s South Africa, opposing the government meant you needed to be a lot like the aloe plant. For Fugard, it's not just the message that's important, but the journey that gets you there—and Third Rail's solid production eloquently renders Fugard's message.
With a current dearth of quality political theater we are fortunate that Athol Fugard's works have not only remained relevant but are perhaps even more so today than when they were first written. In the hands of director Slayden Scott Yarbrough, this story speaks clearly and articulately as a lesson for our own time: Government-sanctioned hatred doesn't just turn us against a commonly defined enemy; it makes every one of us a casualty in the war against ourselves and each other.