Pret-a-Reporter

The Blue Iris: Theater Review

Ed Krieger
Yet another late career gem from perhaps the greatest living playwright in our language.

South African playwright Athol Fugard's latest effort is a meditation on apartheid and memory.

“We all have memories. We just have different ones,” black housemaid Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill) points out to Robert (Morlan Higgins), her lifelong master, while they clean up a burnt-out farmhouse in the remote South African veldt haunted by his dead wife Sally (Jacqueline Schultz) in Athol Fugard’s The Blue Iris. The allusive set is a scrapheap, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett or of Fugard’s own Boesman and Lena. The disconsolate Robert discovers under a pile of rubble a sketch Sally made decades earlier of the titular flower, which had survived six years of drought by dint of its poison. 80-year old playwright Fugard’s newest work, Iris, in its American premiere production, may conjure up ghosts of memory, yet it exhorts the audience to become the medium.

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In declamations of unremitting beauty, Robert and Rieta tell each other about past events they both know, as we do not, yet over the course of the action (a dense 75 minutes) they discover how distinct their perceptions have been. At times their storytelling adopts the blunt soliloquizing characteristic of Eugene O’Neill, although Fugard’s rhetoric is far more concentrated. None of the secrets revealed are surprising, and the play is neither particularly subtle nor deep, yet its lyricism and richness seize the moment almost instantly and never diminish.

While of course inescapably a political allegory of apartheid and its lasting scars, its touch is so light, and the drama so personal, that the play sustains itself entirely through the relationship between the two characters with the intercession of Sally, as a truth-telling spirit of devastating lucidity, who speaks to each of them so they may hear the message they must come to realize.

Fugard is no longer interested in story so much as the act and meaning of storytelling, its place not merely as a chronicle of history but also a narrative of individual needs. His language is unerringly clear. Never mind our awareness of any artifice. He is after bigger stakes than putting on a show, although the three superbly talented actors, as well as deeply sympathetic director Stephen Sachs, certainly are committed to presenting one.

Venue: The Fountain Theatre (through September 16)
Cast: Morlan Higgins, Julanne Chidi Hill, Jacqueline Schultz
Playwright: Athol Fugard
Director: Stephen Sachs
Producers: Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor
Set & Lighting Design: Jeff McLaughlin
Prop Design: Misty Carlisle
Costume Design: Naila Aladdin Sanders
Sound Design and Composer: Peter Bayne
Dialect coach: JB Blanc.

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