The scene: a burned farmhouse, blackened damaged walls, piles of debris, holes in the roof. The housekeeper rummages through to find something to salvage. This action is a metaphor for the damaged lives of the white farmer Robert Hanney (Morlan Higgins) and his black housekeeper (Julanne Chidi Hill).
The housekeeper, Rieta, was a child when her mother came as servant to the house, and her feelings are quite clear: she loves Hanney, always has. His wife (Jacqueline Schultz) is dead, but not quite – her ghost haunts not only the house but Hanney’s mind. Indeed, she appears finally to speak out her angst at having been brought to this desolate place; The Karoo, the South African desert that Robert loves. She came from the city and never appreciated this rather bleak landscape, consoled herself with her little watercolors. The picture she painted last, The Blue Iris, is miraculously saved in the fire and becomes the centerpiece for this love story set in Fugard’s familiar background, the strife between the black underclass and the white landowners of South Africa. Perhaps the political strife is legally over, but on a personal level, there is still much healing to be done.
Fugard, South Africa’s most prolific playwright, is now 80. The political strife, Fugard’s subject through all his plays, is now explored through the personal feelings of two people who need each other to survive. It’s evident that they are comfortable with each other. She looks at the impossible debris of the burned-out house and she says: Let’s take what we can and leave. He can’t leave memory or the ghost of his angry wife – who finally materializes onstage to vent her grief, which is represented by her feeling about the painting: It wasn’t right, it just wasn’t right.
The political national tragedy – the national wound as Fugard sees it – is not yet healed. Under the able direction of Stephen Sachs, the problem is played out as a personal drama between two people who need each other. This is not your usual romantic couple. Hanney is a scruffy middle-aged man, bewildered, rather lost, stumbling around the wreckage caused by storm and fire.
Rieta has only her raggedy clothes and a few pots and pans, but her strength is evident. She does what’s needed. She will take the battered pots, the few surviving bits and pieces; she will cook what food they have over a little camp stove to feed the bewildered Hanney. In the end, it’s her strength that finally conquers and is able to save Hanney.
The play is South African but mirrors the political and ideological separation that plagues our world today. Our own political duality, playing out with increasing animosity, the nations of the world splitting into religious and ideological separations, the wars, the confusion. The character Rieta, as she boxes the bits and pieces which has survived the fire, is the hope for clarity, reason and courage as she leads Hanny out of this burned out house.
Praise belongs to the Fountain Theater, one of the best small theaters in L.A. and Fugard’s voice in this city. The Blue Iris is a one-act play, shorter than Fugard’s usual, but powerful. It leaves an indelible impression: a recognition of the separations between nation and nation, color and color, and the yet the hope that the solution will come from the single hearts, one to one, yearning for communion.
‘The Blue Iris’ will continue performances at the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles, CA through September 16, 2012.
Photos by Ed Krieger.