Actress Jo Lynne Palmer is a treasure. The versatile stage veteran has the uncanny ability to make you believe she means every word she says and that the words she says were not composed elsewhere by some remote author but on the spot. If she says, "Oh, look: a bird," you will look in the direction she has pointed and become terribly disappointed when there is no bird to be seen.
But Palmer's gift can be a curse as well when the lines she has been given to deliver are too painful. She can make you feel embarrassed at having eavesdropped on something as awful as it was intimate.
Such is the case with A Lesson from Aloes, another meditation on the far-reaching evil of racism, by South Africa's premier playwright, Athol Fugard. Toward the end of the play, Palmer's Gladys, who's been fighting madness since the police stole her diaries, has a moment of tremendous clarity. She announces her amazement that the things she hates and fears most about apartheid-era South Africa are, in fact, the only things she's actually learned. You wish Palmer was a less potent performer, because it is all too real and all too familiar. If you are a remotely sensitive Memphian, confronted daily with the politics of race, you'll become disoriented, unable to tell where Palmer's fictional world ends and your life begins. It's as fine a moment as you are likely to witness in the theater. It's too bad that A Lesson from Aloes didn't have more moments like that. There might have been more than a dozen people in the audience Friday night.
The problem begins with the play itself. Fugard is certainly one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century, but A Lesson from Aloes is pretty forgettable by American standards. That is to say it's long on talk and building metaphors and the like but short on action and almost entirely devoid of comic relief. It puts our lazy post-MTV eyes and ears to sleep, and that's too bad. While it may lack the charisma of Fugard's Master Harold and the Boys or the political immediacy of his Sizwe Bansi Is Dead or the rich detail of his Road to Mecca, it is a subtly devastating account of life in a world where hatred has been codified into law. Still, it's hard to imagine why the play-finding committee at Theatre Memphis' struggling Little Theatre (which is trying to recast itself as the hipper-sounding Next Stage) would have chosen a work that, even given a top-notch production, would be sluggish. And while director Pamela Poletti was clearly attentive to the script's basic needs, a few fatal design flaws make it clear that we are watching community theater.
Poletti's decision to perform in the round might as well have been a death warrant for her production. Generally, this is the best and most exciting way for an actor to perform, since it eliminates virtually all convention. But in this case, everything seems unfocused. In a word-driven play, sending your performer off into a far corner, facing away from three-quarters of the audience, is not a terribly good idea.
Stephen Dowdy finds plenty of energy in the role of Steven, a black South African dissident seeking refuge in England. We can feel the weight of his burden. The increased freedoms of a new country can't make up for the pain of leaving the homeland he fought so hard to change but failed.
Barclay Roberts' one-dimensional performance as Piet, a man who risked everything as a political activist and whose closest friends believe he's a traitor, is the least inspired of the lovable actor's career. Roberts' strength has always been the Everyman in every character he plays. Here, however, he seems personable enough but bland and without conviction. There is not enough conflict or mystery in his character to make us care what happens to him, and his placidity makes Palmer's fidgety manias seem grating and spasmodic by comparison. Also, director Poletti has chosen not to use South African accents. Generally, when actors aren't ace dialecticians, this is the smartest thing you can do. But there is, at the very least, a South African rhythm to Fugard's language that must be honored. Roberts' goal, it would seem, became giving the dense, rather stodgily constructed language a casual, decidedly American feel. Needless to say, that's not his character's goal, and this is exactly why Roberts, a committed and giving actor, seems as if he's acting in someone else's play entirely. It's not bad work -- it's just far too mellow.
Only a fool would argue that Fugard's work is unimportant and undeserving of production, but equally foolish is the person who chose to put this great writer's second-tier (maybe third-) work (no matter how elegant) on a struggling theater's season. There are plenty of politically challenging plays out there with more bite and more crowd appeal. On the other hand, until the newly christened Next Stage gets its PR on and begins a vigorous campaign to attract new patrons, it doesn't really matter what's produced. Nobody's going to see it.