In 1963, South Africa was still under apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination that began in the country in 1948 and would last into the 1990s. In a system that raised the white minority to authority, the Black majority of the country faced severe oppression. “A Lesson From Aloes,” written by Athol Fugard, zeroes in on a few individuals living in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Through the narrow lens of a white couple and a Black activist, the play paints the picture of the state of the country during apartheid.
The central white couple consists of Piet and Gladys Benzuidenhout, played by Victor Talmadge and Wendy vanden Heuvel, respectively. Their Black activist friend, Steve Daniels, is played by Adrian Roberts. The play, directed with extraordinary nuance by Timothy Near, is currently playing at Z Space in San Francisco. And within it, these characters face the everyday consequences of a country divided.
“A Lesson From Aloes” is slow-moving in pace and heavy in dialogue, its storytelling putting extreme emphasis upon the mundane details of these individuals’ lives. The strength of its actors is essential for the show to work, necessary to illustrate the seemingly banal atmosphere while remaining captivating. Fortunately, all three members of the cast excel at achieving a superb onstage dynamic, one that oscillates between friendly to tension-filled in a matter of moments.
That tension conveyed is one of the most compelling facets of the play. It sneaks up subtly, but then suddenly radiates through the room. In one moment, Gladys addresses the rumors of Piet being a traitor — he’s accused of informing the police about anti-apartheid activists — by simply asking him if the rumors are true. Piet, taken aback and hurt, remains silent. The two stare at each other from across the table for a long moment, the tension and estrangement between them practically visible, as the silence grows louder. The scene is chilling and striking in its simplicity, though it’s only one instance of Near’s palpable control of tension throughout the play.
While the entire cast shines in its roles, it is vanden Heuvel who deserves a moment in the spotlight. Her character of Gladys is complicated. She is estranged from her husband and dealing with emotional instability that resulted from the state of the country and culminated during a raid in which her diaries were taken. At the same time, she spends most of the play trying to convince the others and herself that she’s actually fine. Vanden Heuvel portrays these layers seamlessly.
Vanden Heuvel depicts a sense of restlessness that’s at first easy to overlook. But as the play goes on, her disquietude becomes more and more noticeable as the audience catches on to her restless cues. Vanden Heuvel utilizes her physicality effectively — she’s constantly scratching at her leg, never staying still.
In one scene, as she tries to set the table, the napkins continuously fall. Her shaky hands can’t make them stable. She moves around the table to each place setting, the napkins falling behind her as she goes. It’s an oddly captivating moment — the audience knows the napkins will fall, just as it knows there are more layers to Gladys’ instability that haven’t yet been revealed. Van Heuvel is utterly alluring in her complex depiction of instability.
Near’s stage blocking perfectly captures the mundanity within chaos that the play embodies. There is intricate detail within every moment. Every movement feels natural, seamlessly conveying the atmosphere of the inner world of this couple’s home. And when the action rises, the actors move farther and farther away from each other, an effective move that emphasizes the exact strength of the tension.
“A Lesson From Aloes” is enthralling in its leisurely pacing. The full weight of the direly divided country takes its time to come to fruition, but by its end, the consequences of a divided country are not only clear, but entirely felt.
“A Lesson From Aloes” will play through June 29 at Z Space’s Z Below theater.