Fugard's profoundest drama yet?; A Lesson from Aloes Starring James Earl Jones, Maria Tucci, Harris Yulin. Drama by Athol Fugard. Directed by Mr. Fugard.

This drama, which had its American premiere at the Yale Repertory Theater before opening here at the Playhouse Theater, is a major event of the season. A man with a fondness for quoting Shakespeare, Piet Benzuidenhout might describe it as a play written more in sorrow than in anger. He would be right. In what may be Athol Fugard's profoundest drama yet, the prize-winning South African playwright is telling about the irretrievably damaging aftermath of a betrayal involving a group of civil-rights activists. The drama's three characters are the principal casualties of the betrayal.

The opening mood is one of troubling quietude. Piet (Harris Ulin), a middleaged Afrikaner, is attempting to identify a species of aloe in the collection of cactuslike plants he cultivates in the backyard garden of "Xanadu, " the Benzuidenhouts' small Port Elizabeth home. Piet is voluble on the subject of aloes, explaining to his English wife, Gladys (Maria Tucci), that the price of their survival is thorns and bitterness.

All of his talk, however, is really an attempted distraction from what is upper- most in their thoughts: the arrival shortly of Steve Daniels (James Earl Jones), a "coloured" (racially mixed) friend, and his family for a farewell reunion supper before the Danielses emigrate to England.

It develops that Piet and Steve were comrades in a civil-rights struggle until -- as a result of the betrayal by a police informer -- Steve was arrested and sent to prison. The police search of the Benzuidenhouts' house following the arrest led to Glady's breakdown and confinement in a mental hospital, an ordeal from which she has not fully recovered. Furthermore, from the way the couple has been shunned by former associates, Gladys fears that Piet is suspected of being the informer. Steve has also entertained the suspicion.

Needless to say, it is not the melodramatics of the situation that interest Mr. Fugard. He is deeply concerned instead with the inhuman factors that have upset this decently human equation, with the complex psychological crosscurrents and their effects on ties of love and friendship. Piet, the failed farmer, ex-bus driver, and civil-rights converts, is a man of infinite patience, resolution, and patriotism. Gladys would readily abandon South Africa and its besetting problems, but Piet is determined to stay. Ex-prisoner Steve has faced the fact that his bricklaying skills and union card are of no avail against a government that he says "won't let me live."

Under Mr. Fugard's direction the separate yet shared dilemmas of the three characters are portrayed with what can only be described as an extraordinarily shared performance. The strength and morale-boosting cheer of Mr. Ulin's Piet contrasts with the apprehensiveness, bitterness, and occasional hysteria of Miss Tucci's Gladys. Mr. Jones plays Steve with a boisterous camaraderie and cheerful vitality that break down only when he denounces the injustice of his situation in an apartheid world. He contributes invaluably to the high-spirited humor with which Mr. Fugard leavens the tragedy of the powerful, eloquent, and moving drama.

The two-area sitting was designed by Michael H. Yeargan, with costumes by Susan Hilferty and lighting by William Armstrong.

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