A series of poems by Thomas Hardy, grieving after the death of his first, estranged wife, inspired Athol Fugard's latest play, The Blue Iris, now receiving its U.S. premiere at Hollywood's Fountain Theatre, directed by Stephen Sachs.
Athol Fugard, the internationally renowned Causasian South African dramatist who writes in English, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his early writing career dedicated to battling his nation's apartheid policies (in plays such as Blood Knot, 1961; and Master Harold and the Boys, 1982). Fugard was as brave as a playwright could be, joining the ranks of Chile's Ariel Dorfman and Czechoslovakia's Václav Havel by risking prison for writing works that looked askance at the policies of their authoritarian governments. It was a baton they passed along to the likes of Russian punk band Pussy Riot.
But when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in South African prisons, and in the nation's first multiracial elections became the nation's first black president, the purpose of aging white liberals such as Fugard became ever more nuanced and difficult to define. After all, South Africa's brave new future also contained a raging AIDS epidemic, and the continuation of unspeakable poverty, revenge and violence.
That transition is what Fugard has been writing about since 1994, in a series of plays set in his beloved Karoo, among them Valley Song (1996), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001), Victory (2007) and his latest, The Blue Iris.
Invariably, they concern an aging white man and young “colored” (the South African term for mixed-race) woman. In Valley Song, presented here at the Mark Taper Forum, the young woman, Veronica, needed to come of age, to escape the confines of the Karoo for a faster life in the city. She was an innocent, and a symbol of the future.
Sorrows and Rejoicings (also premiered here at the Taper) concerned a white, male poet from South Africa who went into exile in London. When he returned to the Karoo, he was dying. There he met the young colored woman he left behind, Rebecca. She answered his abandonment of her by burning his early poems. The essence of Fugard's anxiety was spoken in a single line from that play:
“For your soul's sake, Rebecca, I hope you know that what you did was terribly wrong. What you turned to ash and smoke out there in the veldt was evidence of a man's love, for his country, for his people — for you! Don't reject it. … Rejoice in it! Because if you think you and your New South Africa don't need it, you are making a terrible mistake.”
In Victory, which received its U.S. premiere at the Fountain Theatre, also directed by Sachs, the aging white man (Morlan Higgins) found himself being robbed and held hostage by the young colored woman (born on the day Mandela was released from prison, and consequently named Vickie in honor of this victory) and her boyfriend. The old man was Vickie's educator and mentor. Her petty criminal alliance was a representation of how the innocence of Veronica and the hope for the future in Valley Song had corroded in Fugard's eyes.
Fugard's plays have been getting ever more despondent, and The Blue Iris contains his most austere view to date. Morlan Higgins returns as Robert Hannay, eking out an existence in the Karoo near the charred remains of a house where the colored woman, Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill), once grew up and worked as a housekeeper. Robert still grieves for his wife, Sally (Jacqueline Schultz, appearing as a phantom), who died of a heart attack shortly after a lightning strike that burned their home. (Jeff McLaughlin's set depicts blackened beams and detached doors amidst piles of detritus.)
Sally begged Robert not to leave the night of that storm, but he was determined to buy a new breeding ram, and so now he lives with the agony of his decision on that night of decimation. Rieta stands by him, for reasons unveiled in the play. She endures his conjurings of Sally.
Some verses of one poem by Hardy, “The Voice,” embody Robert's state of mind:
“Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
“Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Traveling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?”
Sally, a painter by avocation, floats through the play on the day Rieta discovers Sally's only painting that was untouched by the fire. It's a botanical portrait of a blue iris, which for Robert brings back the memory of when Sally found the flower on the floor of the drought-blasted veldt — a single symbol of hope in a withered landscape otherwise punctuated by the death of plants and sheep.
That particular flower, however, has poison within its beauty, enough poison to “bring down an ox,” which is why the local farmers so loath it. That's what Sally was trying to capture. What looks pretty contains toxins. And there you have the parable for the contamination of a hope-filled future.
Sachs' meticulously rendered production features a trio of impeccable performances. These include Schultz as Sally's ghost, who arrives as though via tornado, chattering and desperate, before she's sucked away by that same wind tunnel, to explain the meaning of her painting, and of how in painting it she failed to convey that meaning.
Then there's Higgins as Robert, and his fastidious, lumbering search for his own meaning amidst the remains, his world-weary eyes, the sonorous, aching tone in his voice. Hill's Rieta offers a spritely foil — she's as impatient as she is pained. Their joint decision, the only decision in the play, is whether she and Robert, both tramps and Platonic lovers, should stay or go, together or apart. And there's an allegory in that, too, about circumstantial bonds and inexorable isolation. The play is saturated in allegories.
To fully appreciate The Blue Iris, however, one might look beyond Thomas Hardy's poems to W.B. Yeats' poetical drama Purgatory, also set by the remains of a charred house. Purgatory also studies a man grieving for his late wife, trying to release her from purgatory. She, too, paces between life and death, listless in her travels beyond existence. The other character in Purgatory is the man's son, representing a hope for the future that stands on the brink of corrosion.
Both plays wrestle with how past and future can possibly travel any road together. And yet they do, as they must, as they always have. The ensuing, combustible emotions are what provide the fire of our most timeless poems and stories, where writers such as Yeats and Fugard ache to fathom the unfathomable.
THE BLUE IRIS | By Athol Fugard | Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Sept. 16. | (323) 663-1525 | fountaintheatre.com