A LESSON FROM ALOES -- At the Kreeger through December 20.

There are only two horror stories in the South African play "A Lesson from Aloes," at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, and they are briefly told. A white woman has been permanently traumatized by the police's confiscating her private diaries during a raid connected with her husband's anti-Apartheid activitites. A Colored man had been jailed and left in a room with an open window while police tried to mock him into suicide. These things are recounted as occuring before the action of the play, and the victims are on stage, well dressed and free.

One can find American comedies with more viciousness and gore than that. But Athol Fugard's play is profoundly horrifying because what it examines is not persecution itself, but the after-effects of it on three good people: an Afrikaner whose sympathies are now suspected by his former comrades; his wife, who is of English descent and apolitical; and his Colored friend who politicized him, but who is about to emigrate with his family to England.

They meet for a last evening, in which the damage keeps cracking through their valiant conviviality. The wife and friend have given up on their country, but the Afrikaner, who has taken up the study of aloes plants to fill the gap left by politics, has learned that the aloes survive in South Africa because they are thorned on the outside and bitter on the inside. He will stay.

This play, which won the New York Drama Critics Award, is as simple as that. Each of its three actors has done a masterful job of blending weakness and strength-- Stanley Anderson as the Afrikaner, with his tremendous moral solidity and his fearfulness on behalf of his wife; Halo Wines, as the shattered wife, yet able to squeeze a last draft of pure courage; and Zakes Mokae, the South African actor who also played the role in New York, showing through his bravada the frazzled nerves of a man who has undergone one political lifetime, only to have to began again in an unknown country.

There is a whole world of socio-political comment just in the way Mokae habitually hesitates before calling the white woman by her first name. Each character has small, tidy habits --making napkins into fancy shapes, smoothing a bedspread, struggling into a jacket before shaking hands-- that seem to represent civilization. This is part of a very precise insistance on ordinariness in this production, directed by Douglas C. Wager, that makes its horror so powerful.