Something to Learn

Risky casting in Bas Bleu's A Lesson From Aloes creates an imbalance.

The Bas Bleu Theatre Company stands in the heart of Fort Collins's old town, a pleasant collection of galleries, eateries and shops that is less commercial than the downtown malls of either Denver or Boulder. The theater stages stimulating work in a tiny, beautifully converted auditorium that seats forty people. Standing in the lobby, you get the sense of a vibrant and unpretentious community of artists and thinkers congregating there.

The current offering is Athol Fugard's A Lesson From Aloes, set in South Africa in 1963, under apartheid. Nothing about the script feels dated, however: South Africa may have changed radically in the past forty years, but state repression has hardly gone out of style. Aloes takes place in the home of Piet and Gladys Bezuidenhout. He has been an anti-apartheid activist, but he feels the movement has failed. Now he's aging quietly and given to quoting Shakespeare and Keats: "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." The autumn of Piet and Gladys's lives, however, is neither mellow nor fruitful. She suffers from some undefined mental distress; they are both shunned by their former comrades for reasons we will only understand later. He putters about, tending his collection of aloes -- prickly plants that flourish in a harsh, arid environment -- and worries about one small specimen that he can't classify. Eventually, he replants it: By cramping its roots, he hopes to force it to flower in what he calls "a defiant glory." The metaphor is obvious.

From the opening lines, you sense the tension between Piet and Gladys, an Englishwoman who has never lived in England, although she says (untruthfully, we suspect) that she visits often. The England for which she yearns -- a green place as misty as the landscape in Keats's To Autumn -- is a scene from a painting on which she focused under ugly and terrifying circumstances. The first act is a slow one; the dialogue is elliptical, broken by odd bits of tenderness and flashes of inexplicable hostility. Piet sets the table for the expected visit of an old friend and his family. Gladys changes into a peach-colored dress.

Earlie Thomas, Tom Sutherland and Wendy Ishii in 
A Lesson From Aloes.
William Cotton
Earlie Thomas, Tom Sutherland and Wendy Ishii in A Lesson From Aloes.

In the second act, when the celebratory candles have already burned halfway down, the friend appears -- Steven Daniels, a black man and Piet's onetime fellow protestor. He is unaccompanied by his wife and children and perceptibly drunk. Worn out by years of persecution and a six-month prison sentence, Steven is leaving with his family for England. Gladys is filled with envy. Piet, like his aloes, is a genuine South African native; he finds the idea of deserting his homeland incomprehensible.

Even as we see the toll exacted by apartheid -- it's there in Steven's anger and despair ("I don't owe this damn country a thing anymore"), Piet's bewildered sense of impotence and the mental instability of apolitical Gladys -- we in the audience are aware that South African blacks gained the vote in 1994, and Nelson Mandela, who had been released from prison four years earlier, became the country's president. It's haunting to realize that people of Piet, Gladys and Steven's generation probably did not live long enough to see this. There's nothing comforting about the conclusion of A Lesson From Aloes -- no defiant blooming, not even the stoicism of Estragon in Waiting for Godot: "I can't go on. I'll go on." Instead, there's an explosion of grief and complete capitulation.

I'm not sure why director Laura Jones chose to cast two non-actors alongside the highly skilled and talented Wendy Ishii in this three-character play, but the device is not entirely successful. Tom Sutherland, who plays Piet, is well-known for having been imprisoned in Beirut in 1983; he spent six years as a hostage. Clearly, he knows something about repression, and I should love to have heard the cast's conversations on the topic. But Sutherland isn't an actor, and this is a long and difficult part. Piet is a quiet, pedantic, good-hearted Dutchman, sorely tried by his wife's instability, constantly plodding forward through life with his head down. His emotional being exists between the lines. Through the first act, Gladys hisses, remonstrates, weeps, attempts for short periods of time to be normal, and he listens -- just listens and attempts to support her. It takes a very skilled and authoritative actor to tackle so subtle a role. Sutherland makes Piet a decent, likable guy, but there's no complexity or sense of inner life to his performance. Joseph Chaikin of the Open Theatre once wrote a book called The Presence of the Actor; it's a seminal concept. Presence is almost impossible to define, but all good actors have it. It's the quality that rivets your attention, whether the actor is talking about the stock market, murdering someone or just sitting silently, smoking a cigarette. Nicholas Sugar had it in spades as the prancing, leering emcee of the Theatre Group's Cabaretlast year, but so did Ed Baierlein in a much quieter role, as the suburban husband in Germinal's Greek Treats. Sutherland doesn't.

Ishii, as Gladys, does. But experiencing the first act is like watching a game of tennis between a world champion and the kid next door. She slams the ball across the net; he misses or lobs it slowly back. After a while, you start wondering why she's hitting so hard. Sure, it's a true-to-life dynamic -- one marriage partner getting more and more vehement as the other gets progressively sadder and quieter, but the sadness has to be fully expressed nonetheless, or the whole sequence goes out of whack.

Enter Earlie Thomas, as Steven, in the second act, and everything jolts up a notch. Thomas isn't a regular actor, either. He's an ex-football player (New York Jets and Denver Broncos) and the current Director of Environmental Health Services at Colorado State University, but the program does say that he studied drama in high school. Thomas has charisma, energy and presence to spare. Is he a good actor? The term almost seems too small to encompass his performance. He has a resonant voice (he also deploys an effective South African accent), expressive features and a way of moving that's gangly in a strangely graceful way. Sometimes, as when he describes a fishing expedition he took as a boy with his father, he fills the theater with joyous excitement. At other times, I thought, "Oh, he's going over the top," but somehow his work was so exhilarating, I didn't really care.

The play ends on a high dramatic note, as Gladys reveals the trauma she's suffered. Ishii delivers this monologue beautifully and with deep feeling, and yet I found myself resisting tears. Perhaps it was because Ishii had played the entire role too much on one note -- though that might have been the fault of the playwright. Perhaps she was pushing too hard. Or perhaps, in contrast to Sutherland, she just seemed to be.

It's an odd thing: We all know it takes years of training and dedication to play the tuba, say, or dance on pointe, but most people secretly think they can act. This is a mistake. People who are intensely interesting in life aren't necessarily so on the stage. Yet if Bas Bleu's miscalculation damaged Aloes, Thomas's performance remains one of the riskiest and most vital I've seen on a local stage.

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