At 80, South African playwright Athol Fugard is still turning out plays at a rate that would be daunting for a dramatist half his age. A crucial witness to the warping effect of apartheid on his country's soul, Fugard has continued in the post-apartheid era to track the difficult moral journey of characters heeding and resisting the national imperative of reconciliation.
His latest play, "The Blue Iris," receiving its U.S. premiere at the Fountain Theatre, is in keeping with the distilled, backward-looking, frankly mournful style that has dominated his late works. It shares with "The Train Driver" — produced at the Fountain, Fugard's Los Angeles home, in 2010 — a brooding over past injustices, public and private, rooted in the very soil of this hard, majestic land.
Set in a burned-out farmhouse in the arid Karoo landscape, this stripped-down, modestly resonant drama revolves around a bereaved farmer, Robert Hannay (Morlan Higgins), his domestic and companion Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill) and the ghostly visitations of Sally (Jacqueline Schultz), his artist wife, who died shortly after a fire destroyed their home and her paintings.
Robert is filled with remorse over how he treated his wife. The final words between them were heated, with Sally expressing her fear of being left alone as a lightning storm approached and Robert insisting that he carry out necessary business for the farm — a conflict that cuts to the heart of their marital woe.
"I had persuaded her to leave her green, gentle world in Cape Town and share her life with me, here in the Karoo," he reflects, in one of his many somber flights into memory. He lured her with visions of "the magical carpet of flowers" rolled out in the spring, without letting her know that the rain doesn't always come and that there are years when there's not even enough water for a small colorful patch of garden.
One painting has survived the devastating fire. It's a water color of a blue iris, a flower that blooms out of dry hard cracks in the earth and contains enough poison to kill a full-grown ox. Sally felt unsatisfied with her rendering, confiding to Rieta that she captured its delicacy but not its lethal secret.
Beauty and death, love and fury, attachment and resentment — these polarities, projected onto the Karoo terrain, play out in the domestic triangle of Robert's home life. The relationship between Robert and Rieta, a younger black woman, remained latent for reasons that have as much to do with racial history as Sally's wounded presence. More anecdote than action, "The Blue Iris" derives what little forward thrust it has from the discovery these two characters make of their true feelings.
The play's anguish often seems more real than the dramatic circumstances. Fugard may be metaphorically grappling with his own plight — that of an aging author who has devoted himself to chronicling his country's ethical quandaries at some steep personal cost. "The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work," Yeats wrote, and Fugard seems to be calculating the hidden toll of his artistic legacy.
When evaluated on the level of language or character development or plot execution, "The Blue Iris" can seem lacking. But the play is bolstered by an attribute that has made Fugard such an exemplary moral guide for more than half a century — his ability to stand in judgment of himself.
Higgins embodies Robert's guilt so completely that the production practically topples with tragic self-recrimination. Coated in the dirt of his character's trade, Higgins' Robert invokes the image in Shakespeare's sonnet of the dyer whose stained hands reflect a life overtaken by his profession.
The production, under Stephen Sachs' direction, ramps up the vehemence for understandable reasons (this is a short play but not an insubstantial one). But the performers could use a steadying hand.
On Jeff McLaughlin's beautiful wreck of a set, a junkyard of old domestic dreams, the actors have some trouble settling in. At times they threaten to burst the bounds of the playing area with a theatrically heightened grief, much like the way the fire has destroyed the home that is now being sifted through for clues about the past. They are more effective, however, when the emotion emerges directly from the situation and not when it appears to be supplementing a drama resembling a sketch.
"The Blue Iris" may not represent the author of "Boesman and Lena," "'Master Harold' … and the Boys" and "Valley Song" at the peak of his powers, but it provides tantalizing insight into an artist who continues to do his country and world theater proud service.
'The Blue Iris'
Where: The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave. L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 16.
Tickets: $30 to $34
Contact: (323) 663-1525 or http://www.fountaintheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes