Feature

The Blue Iris

Athol Fugard's latest play is a “little gem.”

Fountain Theatre, Los Angeles
(323) 663-1525

*** 

Athol Fugard “remains at the height of his powers,” said Bob Verini in Variety. At 80, the South African playwright is creating work as insightful as at any point in his half-century-long career of dramatizing the scars that apartheid inflicted on his country. The latest is this “little gem” of a drama, here receiving an “exemplary” American premiere. It takes place in the desert-like Karoo region, as Robert, a white farmer, and Rieta, his biracial former housekeeper, comb through the charred remnants of Robert’s lightning-struck home looking for the artwork of his late wife. It’s a “deceptively simple premise,” but “secrets lurk in the ashes, too,” secrets rich in metaphorical power.

The story is indeed “saturated in allegories,” said Steven Leigh Morris in LA Weekly. The one painting that Rieta uncovers is a watercolor of a blue iris—a resilient flower that we’re told contains enough poison to “bring down an ox.” The plant makes a strikingly apt symbol of the “hope-filled future” South Africa faced when apartheid ended, two decades ago—a future “contaminated” by ongoing problems with violence, poverty, and disease. The depiction of Robert and Rieta’s latent, suppressed love for each other is deeply moving, especially as displayed in the “impeccable performances” of Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill. 

But Fugard has done better, said Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times. The Blue Iris adopts the “backward-looking, mournful style” characteristic of his late works, and “the play’s anguish often seems more real than the dramatic circumstances.” Still, this is an emotionally substantial work because it contains more than a hint of self-portrait. The guilt that Robert feels for having left his wife alone as the fatal storm approached suggests Fugard’s own discomfort with the troubles he brought on his family during his long career as a government critic. The play “provides tantalizing insight into an artist who continues to do his country and world theater proud service.”

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