Athol Fugard’s “The Blue Iris” is deceptively simple: A desert farmhouse, just destroyed by lightning, is picked over for its treasures and memories. But secrets lurk in the ashes, too, and in just over an hour the South African master takes us on a journey of loss with the potential to move anyone who’s ever sifted through his or her life and feared what would be dug up. This little gem gets an exemplary American premiere mounting from helmer Stephen Sachs at Fugard’s self-described artistic home out west, Hollywood’s Fountain.
Jeff McLaughlin’s detailed set captures both majesty and ruin in the scorched walls of the Hannay homestead, still sizzling with embers and haze. (McLaughlin also contributed the sensitive lighting of the creeping night.) Gingerly, farmer Robert (Morlan Higgins) and housekeeper Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill) sort out the few possessions worth saving and pile the rest into trash.
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Rieta urges Robert to walk away and start afresh, but he’s obsessed with wife Sally (Jacqueline Schultz), for whom he built the house when she moved from Cape Town. Sally and her life’s work — a series of floral paintings evoking the few beauties of the local parched earth — perished during the conflagration, but her spirit is evidently not done with him. Or, as we’ll discover, with Rieta either.
Fugard has set some interesting dramaturgical problems for himself: not just integrating the supernatural element, but also communicating, to the spectator, exposition that characters who’ve known each other for years would have no reason to speak aloud. With only an occasional misstep, he makes us believe in the need of these old compadres to rake over the past.
Higgins is particularly fine in recollecting the six-year drought that began at the time of his wedding, and Hill the chaos resulting from a new mistress entering the home. All three thesps seem fully authentic in the environment, and though their accents are thick and peppered with Afrikaans lingo (JB Blanc did the vocal coaching) helmer Stephen Sachs consistently sees to it that physicalization conveys anything we might miss in the occasional missed phrase.
There are metaphors aplenty to pull out of this poetical situation (possibly political ones, too, though maybe you have to be South African to find those). Work this precise — tiny in its details, weighty in its cumulative effect — can only be achieved after a lifetime of artistic engagement. At 80, Fugard remains at the height of his powers.