LESSON FROM ALOES, by Athol Fugard; directed by Jackson Phippin; set by Tony Straiges; costumes by Leslie Skannal; lighting by John Tissot; speech consultant: Le Clanche du Rand.

With James Hurdle, Beth Dixon and Charles Henry Patterson.

At Center Stage in Baltimore through Oct. 25.

It is clear from the first moments of "A Lesson From Aloes" that something is askew -- a woman, wearing sunglasses, sits in her back yard, absolutely still. A normal person would move, or fidget, or read, or knit -- but she does not; she is motionless.

Of course, her stillness is temporary, and her story, and her husband's and their friend's, are revealed by playwright Athol Fugard like layers of an onion, each piece more stinging than the last. This South African play is currently being given a sensitive production at Baltimore's Center Stage and is scheduled for later this season at Arena Stage here, a surprising burst of popularity for a very serious play set in a distant country.

The apartheid system requires South Africans to register as members of one of four races, and forbids different races to live in the same area. No other medium can communicate the human costs of this system and the accompanying enforcement apparatus as well as theater.

Fugard, South Africa's best-known playwright, is a liberal who wishes neither to leave his country nor to condemn it beyond redemption. The characters in "A Lesson from Aloes" are simple people grappling with injustice that they're ill-equipped to battle -- a white bus driver who likes to recite poetry, his emotionally frail wife, and their friend the black radical, who has decided to leave the country rather than become a martyr.

The wife, Gladys Bezuidenhout, beautifully played by Beth Dixon, has had a nervous breakdown after police broke into their house and read her private diaries. Her internal life, her emotional being, has been violated by this act, and her torment is a metaphor for all who are wretched. The husband, Piet Bezuidenhout, is almost irritating in his stolid refusal to be discouraged, to defend himself against accusations of being a police informant, or to give up the ideal of political change. The black friend, Steve Daniels, is the most obvious victim, yet each of the three characters has been maimed by an inhumane system.

Fugard aims at a Chekhovian sensibility, and he succeeds quite well -- almost too well. The importance of what the play is saying cannot obscure the fact that the first act and beginning of the second are rather slow, with long stretches of small talk, making the audience feel like a silent fourth person at the table -- the table where eight places are set for the guests who do not arrive. The talk is all kindling for the fire that is eventually lit, but there are times when it seems just that -- talk.

Tony Straiges' set expresses the sense of isolation and distance familiar to Chekhov as well, a feeling of being disconnected from time and the world. In this case the place is dry and white, a spare South African bungalow with only the cactus-like aloes that Bezuidenhout collects for color. James Hurdle in this role is effectively enthusiastic, but gives little sign that the courageous choices he has made in his life have had any effect on him. Charles Henry Patterson as the friend gives a performance with more depth, but it is Dixon who has the real opportunity to explore the inner reaches of the mind, and she does so most affectionately.