Potted aloe plants crowd Piet (Victor Talmadge) and Gladys (Wendy vanden Heuvel) Benzuidenhout’s backyard. Since retiring from his job as a municipal bus driver, Piet has devoted himself to the provenance and categorization of aloes. He carries a guidebook in his pocket and brings home the new specimens he finds while walking on the outskirts of their neighborhood in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Piet finds something comforting in knowing their names. In the opening scene of Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes — through June 29 at Z Below — he tells his wife, “And knowing them is important. It makes me feel that little bit more at home in my world.”
Not feeling at home discomfits both of them. This white couple has a privileged position in society but it costs them their peace of mind and stability to live in a country that’s divided by race and hostility. Aloes was first produced in 1978 — nearly 20 years before the end of apartheid rule in South Africa — but the play still resonates as an indictment of totalitarian states. When the story begins, the government has succeeded in disbanding the anti-apartheid organization in which Piet, as an active member, found purpose and friendship. Someone in the group betrayed Piet’s best friend Steve (Adrian Roberts), a Black South African who has recently been released from prison. The traitor has yet to be identified, and even Piet isn’t above suspicion.
The Benzuidenhouts, like Mrs. Dalloway before them, are expecting company for dinner. Gladys though is the one who’s all nerves anticipating Steve, his wife and their children. Vanden Heuvel does a remarkable job playing a broken woman losing control of her emotional life. And she has good reason to feel the way she does. Some months before, the authorities searched their home, found her personal diaries and confiscated them. Fugard writes in an allusive way, leaving the facts murky or unsaid. The playwright doesn’t say she’s a writer by profession nor does he comment on what might have been in her journals besides her most private thoughts. He opts instead to communicate to haunt her with this violation, which we feel keenly thanks to vanden Heuvel’s shrewd interpretation.
Gladys blames Piet’s political activism, and his male stoicism, for her angst and unhappiness — fairly or unfairly, it will soon be determined. If it had been up to her, they would have left for England long ago. Unlike her husband’s Dutch farming roots and his attachment to the land, Gladys’ heritage is English. It’s in her accent, maiden name and manner. She longs to live in a country where roses flourish instead of Piet’s cherished aloes. She resents them as much as she resents his kindness, patience, and mildness. They’re mismatched and childless, yet loving toward each other. Gladys wasn’t strong enough, psychologically, to fight for the cause. Her husband understands and accepts this about her. He accepts her rage at and disappointment in the country they’ve called home. But in this exchange, he encourages her to be more resilient:
Gladys: Is that the price of survival in this country? Thorns and bitterness.
Piet: For the aloe it is. Maybe there’s some sort of lesson for us there.
Gladys: What do you mean?
Piet: We need survival mechanisms as well.
At the beginning of the second act, it’s late when Steve arrives alone at their door. His family has stayed behind. The party was meant to be a farewell dinner for all of them. Steve’s acquired an exit visa for England to start their children’s lives anew in a foreign country. After being jailed for an arbitrary offense, he’s certain that for his family to survive they must leave South Africa or risk further imprisonment, or worse. He’s come to say his goodbyes and to find out if Piet was the one who betrayed him. When Steve says to Piet, somewhat acridly, “If I had a white skin, I’d also find lots of reasons for not leaving this country.” He doesn’t want to leave but he’s run out of options because of his skin color.
Because Piet withholds his emotions, and because Steve enters late in the play, Fugard makes Gladys the central figure. Her troubles are front and center. Some people in the audience might recoil from her or withdraw their sympathy when she declaims, “Politics and Black skins don’t make the only victims in this country.” But the playwright isn’t equating her (white) suffering with Steve’s, however real her pain may be. Gladys is self-conscious enough to say, “I accept, Steven, that I am just a white face on the outskirts of your terrible life, but I’m in the middle of mine and yours is just a brown face on the outskirts of that.” It’s a cold statement that acknowledges her sense of displacement. Only the implacable aloes, with their built-in, defensive sets of thorns, feel at home in a country like South Africa, where one race is privileged over another. In a country like South Africa, or in a country like our own.
A Lesson from Aloes, through June 29, at Z Space, 450 Florida St. $25-$50; 415-626-0453 or zspace.org/aloes