The Lantern Theater Company’s production of The Island may be entertaining, but its primary value is educational which is a direct result of the gravity of its subject matter and the authenticity of its script. I left the performance with a visceral impression of the horrors of race-based oppression and man’s cruel inhumanity to his fellow man. The Island depicts the relationship between two cell-mates who are prisoners of the South African state during the apartheid era. It is a grim reminder that less than 20 years ago, not too far away in a smallish country just across the Atlantic, an appalling violation of human rights finally came to an end. The play was written by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona in 1973, more than two decades before the apartheid system was dismantled by the better angels of the South African people. The two cellmates,  “John” and “Winston,” learn and perform a barebones rendition of Sophocles’ Antigone for the amusement of their jailers and fellow prisoners.  One of the first scenes involves the humorous education of Winston (played with such realism by U.R. that I forgot he was acting) about the plot of the Greek tragedy. Much of the play unfolds in the uncomfortable solitude of make-believe. The stage itself is a simple grey dais, above which hangs a flaky wooden grid. Speakers around the small theater added a cinematic element to the production, which was equally surreal and sometimes, when the alarm sounded, uncomfortable. Throughout the one-act play, I found myself caught between the worlds of realism and imagination, as in an out-of-body experience. In the opening scene, the two protagonists pretend to dig and move sand across the stage, as ordered by the electronically rendered voice of their keeper, auf Deutsche. As they repeatedly shuttle back and forth in the grooves between dais and audience, it becomes apparent that John (Frank X) is struggling to lift the impossibly heavy bags of nothing. The bags under his eyes seem to sag lower, and his fake exertions nonetheless cause bullets of sweat to drop to the floor from his shaved head. The Island makes other theatrical productions seem like fluffy, farcical entertainment. This play will move, unseat, and transform you. Director Peter DeLaurier said it best: “This play is a hymn to the power of theater.” — BRANDON LAFVING

The Island plays at Lantern Theater Company’s St. Stephen’s Theater at 10th and Ludlow (1 block south of Market St.) through June 10, 2012. Box Office: 215-829-0395