‘We must accept the consequences of when and where we are born,” says a character in Athol Fugard’s blistering 1978 race drama “A Lesson From Aloes.” How hard was it to resist in mid-20th-century South Africa? How difficult was it to entertain new ideas?
Resistance is also the theme in the new play “Transmission,” which comes on like a vintage radio broadcast but ultimately dares us to reject what we think we believe now.
Both shows are intimate listening experiences. Fugard’s “Lesson,” set in 1963 as Nelson Mandela stood trial for inciting opposition to the apartheid government, is an old-fashioned three-character drama, unfolding over one long day as a white South African and his high-strung wife argue with a black friend; they’re all cracking under the pressure of the country’s racist system. The play is a methodical airing of arguments, and the Quotidian Theatre Company’s performance on the small Writer’s Center Stage in Bethesda is subdued.
“Transmission” is produced by The Welders, the collective of D.C. playwrights, and it’s being staged as a boutique event for a limited audience of 20 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. It’s written and performed by Gwydion Suilebhan, who entertains the audience in a 1930s-40s living room setting. The group gathers around massive radios and sits in plush easy chairs, or on the sofa.
In a vest and tie, the retro-styled Suilebhan strolls among the listeners and worries about the bossy nature of stories and information. Stuff goes viral and we lose our minds! You’re with him as he frets.
But you can’t really believe a playwright who says he doesn’t trust stories, can you? The character that Suilebhan plays seems earnest, yet also subversive and mischievous. He amplifies the usual theatrical conspiracy by making the audience a cozy little group, looking you in the eye as he tells you how dangerous even books are, and how pathetically reflexive the brain is whenever it hears “Once upon a time.”
The atmosphere is “CBS Radio Mystery Theater” — Suilebhan has a suspenseful way of speaking, and the lighting is decidedly low — yet the content is literary theory. It’s intriguing but dense, and it seems contradictory as it wrings its hands (hopefully? despairingly?) over how we can possibly think freely or communicate afresh. Bertolt Brecht wrestled with the same problem: How do you snap audiences out of a happy stupor and into critical consciousness when they watch a show?
So what is Suilebhan doing as he sermonizes for about an hour in this living room full of soothing radio sounds? Is he comforting us, or (the likelier choice) looking for ways to think outside the box? Well, guess what? You can talk about just that for 30 minutes or so in a “facilitated dialogue” led by the well-trained Jordana Fraider. Huddle in small groups. Discuss. It’s vogue in certain theatrical circles now, but that’s no business like show business.
The drama of “Lesson” lies in the mistrust that germinates in South Africa’s oppressive political regime and infects even the tightest of circles, the marriage between the liberal Afrikaner Piet (David Dubov) and his wife, Gladys (Laura Russell). Gladys suffered a breakdown after the police raided their home and stole her diaries. Why the raid? Who betrayed the circle of protesters that included Piet and his black friend Steve (Addison Switzer)? Was it Piet?
Under Laura Giannarelli’s attentive direction, the actors are persuasive with the accents — Gladys’s is English, Piet rolls his r’s as an Afrikaner — and with the personal schisms. But as they play the long scenes on the simple set that suggests an edge-of-the-desert home, the drama just doesn’t combust. This is a story of back stories: It takes a while for them to explain why Gladys broke down, why Piet is isolated, why Steve and Piet’s friendship has snapped. The scalding social pressure that reduces South Africans to something as prickly as Piet’s aloe plants is a heat you never really feel.