Sitting amongst the rubble of burnt, misunderstood memories, we venture into Athol Fugard’s newest creation, The Blue Iris. The Fountain Theatre has yet again mounted a visually stunning production that is carried by superb acting and producing talent. Where The Blue Iris draws a blank is unfortunately in the writing. The play is a story of a forlorn old farmer who has lost his wife in a traumatic fire, or was it in a heart attack caused by the fire? Unfortunately many questions like this one may arise for audience members after seeing the play.
Fugard no doubt has talent; during his 80 years on this planet he has contributed many great pieces to the theater world. Perhaps this play is too fresh and not quite yet fine tuned, but something seems missing. We meet Rieta Plaasman (Julanne Chidi Hill) and her boss Robert Hannay (Morlan Higgins), who are rummaging through the rubble of their beloved burnt home. Robert is desperately searching for the answer as to why his late wife Sally (Jacqueline Schultz) is haunting the remains of their house. While Rieta does her best to pack up what is salvageable and convince Robert to leave their past behind them.
After thirty minutes of talking about Sally and her beloved drawings of wild flowers, a chill ran down my spine as Schultz appeared in an upstage doorway dressed in an all white night gown. I truly felt as if I was seeing a ghost and that moment alone makes the whole night worth seeing.
After that breathtaking moment the play seems to lose all air it had like a helium balloon slowly deflating. Any suspense that had been built up with unanswered questions and unknown feelings, goes out the window when Robert and Rieta pack up and leave. No real conclusion is drawn, perhaps a lesson is learned but what particular lesson it is seems unclear.
What makes the first half of this play intriguing at all are the actors. Chidi Hill’s Rieta is played to heart wrenching perfection from her mannerisms to her impressive South African accent. She interprets the illusive text to the best that it can be and shows a strong array of emotions. Watching Chidi Hill work through the material is fascinating to a show stealing level. Which can become a problem for Higgins, since Chidi Hill is staged so far from him in most of their scenes. The set is beautifully tragic and sprawling as it ranges from the burnt down front room of the house and an outdoor section located directly next to the house. Robert spends most of his time running around frantically searching for Sally. While Rieta desperately tries to restore normalcy with a proper dinner prepared on a fire range outdoors. Because these two are barley ever next to each other, it almost feels as if you are watching a tennis match, trying to absorb the emotions of both actors.
Perhaps I am just not familiar enough with Fugard’s work to understand the deeper meaning to this rather odd piece. To me it seems as if there is a lovely structure to a story somewhere in the text, yet it is never quite filled in. It is almost as if a few pages got left out somewhere and the key to what makes everything come together is simply missing. Either way, though the play is flawed, the Fountain Theatre has done it’s normal feat by presenting a beautifully staged, lighted and acted production of this new work. Through the Direction of Stephen Sachs, they have made this questionable piece as entertaining and moving as it could possibly be. One thing is for sure, a trip to the Fountain will never leave you with a bitter tang of disappointment, but on this occasion it will probably leave you with a few unanswered questions.