Master Harold...and The Boys by Athol Fugard. Directed by Hal Brooks.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Wendell Franklin, Clifton Guterman, and Guiesseppe Jones as Willie, Hally and Sam; photo: Hubert Schriebl
"Emotionally maybe...Intellectually no."
South African playwright Athol Fugardís semi-autobiographical play, "Master Harold...and The Boys" is a strong play in many different ways. It presents a strong picture of apartheid South Africa in 1950. It makes a strong case for racial tolerance. It shows a strong picture of the individual determination of men who know their place in the world and strive to maintain it. It tells a strong story about a boyís first glimpse of his future manhood. It is a very human tale about relationships.
Itís three characters are each embroiled in difficult and challenging kinships to one another and friendships and romances outside of the St. Georgeís Park Tea Room, where the play is set. In its single, 97-minute, form it is unrelenting. For an hour and a half you, the audience, are wafted back and forth between the comedy and tragedy of these relationships and at the end you know more about yourself than you expect to know because in some way we are all reflected in these three men.
Fugard has made a career out of understanding the black men of his country. He has done it brilliantly in plays like "Valley Song," "Boesman and Lena," "Blood Knot," and "Sizwe Banzi is Dead." In this play he opens up his heart completely to the differences that controlled the country of his birth at the time of his youth. He creates this sense of personal memoir, personal experience through which to explore the difficulties of the universal human heart. Hally, the Master Harold of the title, along with Sam and Willie, the black men who work for Hallyís mother at the Tea Room, are very different people, although they unveil the similarities they share, almost shocking each other with the reality of the depths of their humanity.
Hally loves, reveres and hates his father. His violence encountering the concept of this man and his sweetness in his actual conversation with him reflect in his handling of Sam and their long-standing friendship. Willieís desire for recognition as a winner fights his need to abuse his partner the more he needs her help to win a dance contest. The abuse he uses is classic in the world he inhabits, but it is unlikely to be the road to success. Sam has to be the strong person in both of his companionís lives here, but he also has to break that strength in order to survive in this world. In what should be an ordinary, usual afternoon, trapped inside the shop they make their afternoon home by a heavy rain, these three suddenly collide and many difficult strains in all of them emerge. Even the complacent Sam is pushed into emotional outbursts.
Clifton Guterman plays Hally. It isnít that he is white that makes a difference for us, but rather his deep, underplayed superiority that makes it all work. Guterman approaches the role with an arrogance that is marvelous. His teenager, high school student Hally, is a being who knows his place in the world of apartheid and he has not usually abused it, but this day he does and he feels, as we can see, the internal emotions of that abuse. Guterman is not always likeable, but he makes us always feel something like sympathy for his character. We donít want to tolerate his behavior, but we do because he lets us inside through his facial expressions, through his body language. As his Hally strives to be intellectual and not emotional he becomes more and more emotionally strung out. That constant surge to control and simultaneously protect his small world is what Guterman brings to the fore so well. Itís a difficult role for a young actor and this man does well with the challenges.
Wendell Franklin is a charming, attractive Willie. Willieís urge to dance, his clear devotion to his elder, Sam, his quiet admiration for the wrong things in Hally, are all well presented by Franklin. He makes the most of the characterís needs in this play.
Guiesseppe Jones is an excellent Sam. He plays tolerance, patience and anger with equal force and strength. He is sweet to both of his compatriots when it is called for, almost saccharine with Hally at times. However, when his anger is called for, when it strikes both the personal and political overtones of the play, Jones is in complete control of his role. Oddly, though, the very end of the play loses some of its resonance due to what may be a flaw in the writing, or a flaw in the direction of the play. Sam makes his position clear to Hally, makes a decision and seems to stick with it. Minutes later Fugard has him return in a more submissive mood, more subordinate and less recalcitrant. That would be fine, but somehow the playing of this scene feels wrong and the final moment of the play, with just Sam and Willie, also seemed out-of-step. Jonesís Sam is a man who clearly knows how things are and how things must be, but his concept of how they should be just wasnít well-defined. In an otherwise perfect performance the final moments lost some of their clarity.
On an excellent set by Wilson Chin, lit emotionally by Stuart Duke, director Hal Brooks has created a tiny world where everything moves smoothly and with that familiarity that says this is home, this is right. For most of this productionís emotional time line Brooks has taken the right choices and worked his actors into their proper places. Itís a very revealing play, directed to be just that, very revealing. Although the title character would seem to be the focus of the play, Brooks has subtly moved our attention to Sam and his concealed history - we know less about him in the script than we do about Willie. That shift, a directorial shift, provokes questions that this production cannot answer.
Patricia Norcia has coached her three actors well in their South African accents.
"Master Harold...and The Boys" is, as it always was, very good theater. The short run of this play demands a prompt response, and it is the same way within the play. Donít hesitate or you will lose an opportunity to see something unique, a play whose message can be read in many ways by many people. It all depends upon your experiences in this world.
"Master Harold...and The Boys" plays at the Weston Playhouse through September 8. It then plays a week of school-audience matinees through September 14. It resumes performances on tour beginning Tuesday October 2 at the Casella Theater, Castleton State College, Castelton, VT, Wednesday October 3 at Dibden Center for the Arts, Johnson State College, Johnson, VT, Thursday October 4 at Chandler Center for the Arts, Randolph, VT, Friday October 5 at Flynn Center, Burlington, VT, Saturday October 6 and Sunday October 7 at Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, NH. For full schedules, prices and tickets contact the Weston box office at 802-824-5288.