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Athol Fugard's "The Blue Iris" Is Compelling But Uneven

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One mixed blessing about being successful is that people can no longer tell you what to do, and if they try, it's easy to ignore them. On the one hand, pure artistic freedom is a wonderful thing, but on the other hand, sometimes people need editors and sometimes plays need rewrites. I have no way of knowing what Athol Fugard's artistic process is these days, but his latest work, The Blue Iris, (currently in its U.S. premiere in a solid production at the Fountain Theatre) is intermittently compelling but ultimately seems undercooked.

The story begins in modern-day South Africa, in the desert region called the Karoo. Robert (Morlan Higgins) is searching through the ruins of his home, which had burned down from a lightning strike. His wife Sally (Jacqueline Schultz) had died of a heart attack shortly after the fire, and Robert refuses to leave, worrying that her spirit is still there. His housekeeper Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill) tries to get to him to leave, to no avail. When they discover an undamaged painting Sally made of a local blue flower, however, the secrets of the living and the dead will finally be uncovered.

Higgins is a portrait of a beaten-down grief as Robert, his emotional wounds still unhealed and raw. He particularly excels in his delivery of a monologue about the near decade-long drought in the Karoo in the 1970s, not just detailing the physical toll but the toll on Robert's marriage as well. Both of Schultz's scenes are full of surprise and powerful emotion, and her intense performance jolts the play into dramatic overdrive. Hill does a fine job with a complicated character, and she manages to make her final revelation to Robert both tragic and sweet.

Director Stephen Sachs and his trio of talented actors bring every positive aspect out of the show, and demonstrate that there is some very memorable material here. They're so good, however, that the bright light they generate puts a spotlight on the show's flaws. Fugard's renowned skill for language and drama is still present, but the motivations of his two female characters aren't backed up sufficiently enough within the writing to be believable. The ending in particular is sudden and unconvincing. These are both things, however, that a rewrite could address. Jeff McLaughlin's set, all fallen rafters and piles of blackened rubbish, creates a properly arid mood for a tale of lost people haunting their own house.

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"The Blue Iris" plays through September 16 at the Fountain Theatre. Tickets are available online.