A Lesson From Aloes

By - Mar 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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By Russ Bickerstaff

Juxtapose three people in a domestic setting and you probably could end up launching a production of just about anything. Milwaukee Camber Theatre uses three actors and a domestic setting to launch a particularly moving bit of drama with Athol Fugard’s A Lesson From Aloes. All appears reasonably peaceful on the set as the lights rise but it’s an illusion. Aloes takes place in the oppressive days of the early 1960s in South Africa. We see the effects of a police state on three distinctly different individuals. It’s an interesting set up that is masterfully executed by three talented actors under the direction of a Milwaukee theatre icon in a lush and detailed set that is tastefully illuminated. A Lesson From Aloes is a compelling evening of drama.

As the play opens, Piet Bezuidenhout (Brian Robert Mani) is feverishly studying tiny potted aloes that he had collected. The stage is decorated in great numbers of them and he is talking about them with great passion. It’s easy to get caught up in Piet’s interest as the intensity of Mani’s performance animates Fugard’s subtly poetic bits of dialogue. As preoccupied as Piet and much of the play seems to be with Aloes, we find out later on that it’s only a recently acquired hobby for him. There’s a lot more to him and his life and his relationship with his wife than breathes through the surface. The brilliant thing about Mani’s performance is that, as central a figure as he is onstage, the complexity of his personality comes as something of a surprise as it is slowly revealed. While there is very little direct foreshadowing to this complexity, it doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere when it finally becomes apparent.

As the lights come up on that first scene, Piet’s wife Gladys (Tracy Michelle Arnold) is sitting not far from him wearing a big, dark pair of sunglasses. As simple as this seems, she’s a bit of a mystery even in the opening minutes. We’re not even seeing her eyes. The character slowly seems to get more and more comfortable with the third wall as things progress. Fugard slowly coaxes her into greater and greater prominence as the plot navigates its way to the end of the last act. Tracy Michelle Arnold plays it with a style and poise that gazes right into the heart of the character. The role requires much of her expression to be nonverbal. Nowhere is this more apparent than when she is alone at a writing desk in the bedroom. As the audience, we’re seeing the bedroom from a cutout in the wall. It feels very invasive watching Arnold in the bedroom even though she’s actually doing very little. It’s one of the most delicate bits in the entire play and she carries it off remarkably well.

Patrick Sims rounds out the cast as Steve Daniels – an old friend of Piet’s. Steve is a black man reluctantly moving to England because of the political climate in South Africa. Piet has invited Steve and his family over for dinner before they leave the country; only Steve shows up. There’s an intricate dynamic between Steve and Piet that’s fascinating to watch. When Steve finally arrives alone just after intermission, we see a mixture of friendship and resentment between the two that sheds light into the complexities of everything between these three people in South Africa in 1963. Sims plays the social catalyst come to see an old friend one last time. It’s very, very gripping drama. VS

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of A Lesson From Aloes runs now through March 11th at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. Tickets range in price and can b purchased by calling the box office at 414-291-7800 or online at www.chamber-theatre.com.

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