Following a failed revolt against apartheid in South Africa, 1963, a trio of survivors -- or are they? -- will meet for a reunion and a parting. Afrikaner Piet works on his aloes collection, especially naming what he thinks is a new species found on the land his family’s farmed for ages, but no longer. Naming or classification of people distinguished the political “system” and also displaced his wife Gladys. She’s back from being nursed for a nervous breakdown. Just as isolated now from former society as Xanadu, their ironically named house, Gladys dreams of the England of her own origins.
While the couple, obviously on edge, await Piet’s former political comrade Steve and family, they disagree on what aloes “teach.” To Piet, it’s that glory lies in aloes’ defiance of harsh conditions and being symbols of hope for the future, of usefulness to fellow beings in nature. Affecting Gladys finds the plants ugly, thorny, bitter -- not what she wants to be, not “turgid with violence, like everything else” in the land.
Her solace has been the diary in which she’s kept her secrets. When it was taken from her, she was violated. Sara Morsey (a real find for Banyan) exhibits Gladys’ fear of regression and her fight -- will she win? -- to keep sane.
Moving Peter Thomasson makes the most, without being sanctimonious, of Piet’s attempts to soothe his wife. He’s more trusting than she but also wrung with doubt. What a sense of relief when, even without wife and kids, long- awaited Steve appears. Ron Bobb-Semple gives him a powerful presence, not without providing a bit of needed, almost comic relief – at first. Themes of loyalty and betrayal converge in the drama’s second half. The only thing crystal clear is that life in a country whose actions are morally gross gives rise to the separation of its people. Like aloes taken from their rightful habitat, classified, and forced to live in tins. Small wonder such madness gives rise to more of the same in humans.
Not a comfortable play, A Lesson from Aloes nevertheless mightily involves, a primary aim of The Banyan Theater Company. Director Dan Walker, usually a leading area actor, draws astonishingly insightful performances from his cast. No one drops an accent either. Responding to Walker’s style of eliciting what seems natural, effortless, the technical staff create a simple but effective environment in which the characters both evolve and regress.
Banyan again renders summer theatergoing a thoughtful experience, unlike any other in Sarasota.