In white South African playwright Athol Fugard’s 1979 three-hander “A Lesson from Aloes” onstage at Z Below in The City, the spiky aloe plant, which Piet, an Afrikaner, cultivates obsessively, is a metaphor for dry, apartheid-era South Africa: drought resistant, tough. “We need survival mechanisms as well,” he tells his English wife, Gladys. “Maybe that’s the lesson from aloes.”
“They frighten me,” retorts Gladys. “They’re turgid and violent like everything else in this country.”
His passion is, in her eyes, a hobby to fill his time “now that the politics have left.”
Indeed, the good old days of anti-apartheid activism seem over now, in 1963, in the face of police raids and jail sentences.
But former activist Piet (Victor Talmadge), won’t leave, so the couple is struggling — in relationship to each other, to their native land and to their erstwhile comrades.
The latter is represented by a black friend, Steve (Adrian Roberts), who is about to leave, with his family, for England. Fresh out of jail, he, like so many others, is giving up the fight.
There’s lots going on in this (at times overly) talky drama about a topic — racism, resistance to a regime — that feels uneasily relevant today.
But in director Timothy Near’s beautifully designed (by Deb O) production, things don’t take off until the second act.
That’s partly because of Fugard’s writing — in Act 1, he’s shoehorning in lots of background information along with Piet’s literary quotes and ruminations about his beloved plants.
But it also has to do with the acting. While Talmadge has crafted a Piet who’s gentle, endearingly didactic and utterly believable, Wendy vanden Heuvel’s portrayal of the traumatized and fragile Gladys is unfocused: She jumps from moment to charged moment with no organic throughline, no sense of a consistent and authentic character behind the fidgety body language, the hysterical outbursts and the sudden sunshiny smiles.
Yet when Steve enters in Act 2, and the two men are onstage, there’s an electricity between Talmadge and Roberts that’s palpable, and a current of neediness, anguish and mistrust.
Should Piet, like Steve, leave the cursed land and emigrate, if only for the sake of his apolitical and unstable wife? Is Steve a traitor for abandoning what he considers a lost cause? And could Piet have been the informer that turned Steve in to the police years ago?
Ultimately, the play’s thorny issues become deeply affecting.
A Lesson from Aloes
Presented by Weathervane Productions
Where: Z Below, 470 Florida St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 29
Tickets: $10 to $50
Contact: (415) 626-0453, www.alessonfromaloes.com