Saturday, October 25, 2014

Review: Thalia's Umbrella's beautifully rendered Fugard production

Pam Nolte, William Hall, Jr. and Terry Moore (John Ulman)

A Lesson from Aloes
Thalia’s Umbrella
(at Taproot Black Box)
Through October 26, 2014

Athol Fugard may not be a name you know well, or at all. However, he has earned his reputation well as a prolific playwright hailing from South African and often writing about people enmeshed in the consequences of their political and social systems of Apartheid. His beautifully written play, A Lesson from Aloes, is being produced by Thalia’s Umbrella – a company created by theatrical veterans Terry and Cornelia Moore to produce plays they feel an especial kinship with.

This three-hander, starring Terry Moore, Pam Nolte and William Hall, Jr., is a play you must pay careful attention to. The layers are geothermic (if you’d rather, we could go back to onions, though that’s boring), and call for careful mining. Moore and Nolte are a white couple, Piet or Pieter and Gladys, who had found fellowship and common cause with the black movement toward freedom and equality. But we meet the two of them after some difficult events.
We easily discern that Gladys has returned after a sequestration of some sort, after a kind of illness, and she is fragile and uneasy. The couple looks forward to the night’s festivities when an old family friend and his family will join them. But the stresses are not easily put away and cracks in the serene, hot day appear and disappear.

When we meet Steve (Hall, Jr.), in the second act, he comes without his family and makes their excuses. He, too, initially seems boisterous and warm towards the couple. But we learn that he has doubts about his friend and thinks Piet may have been the turn-coat who put Steve in prison.

The title of the play is a mysterious and enigmatic one: Piet has become obsessed with the aloe plant, but what might we learn from it? My guess is that it is about names. Piet’s first monologue is about an aloe plant he has not yet identified and he quotes Shakespeare (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”). Naming things after proper research is important.

The reference to names might be applied to the “name” of “traitor” that might be applied to Piet, if he really informed on his friend to the authorities. But here, it also references the proper research – evidence of culpability. And evidence does not seem to be present, only suspicion. That seems to be the lesson of the title.

The technical support is terrific for this production. The unit set of an outdoor patio (by Jason Phillips) and intense outdoor lighting by Roberta Russell, provide the hot South African scene. Lucy Peckham provides faraway ambient sounds of dogs barking and scenic interlude music. The play is deftly directed by Daniel Wilson.

This is a beautifully rendered production with a strong cast. Even so, William Hall, Jr. is pitch perfect every moment, perhaps because he has done the role two other times. It is a masterful performance.

For more information, go to or for tickets or call 206-781-9707. 

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