Roundabout Theatre Company presents
In the 21 years since "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys premiered on Broadway, the world has changed a great deal; the decades-old racial segregation system of apartheid in South Africa, which drives the play, has since more or less dissolved. Yet, as the new revival at the Royale Theatre proves, the power and quiet majesty of Athol Fugard's play has not diminished at all with time.
All that has been lost is the original's compelling relevance and urgency. But, as great plays often do, this one has transcended the political and social circumstances of its birth to still offer something vital in the wake of the crumbling of apartheid. It may now stand as a searing reminder of the actions and attitudes that hopefully will not be seen again - after all, those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
This production, itself, is possessing of no small amount of history. It has been directed by one of the Broadway production's original stars (Lonny Price) and stars yet another, Danny Glover. Glover has graduated, this time playing the role of Sam, the older and wiser of the two black servants who appear in the play. Michael Boatman is playing Willie, Glover's old role, and Christopher Denham is playing Price's role of Hally, the young white man who must confront the explicit and implicit racism present in society and his own family.
As both Willie and Sam have served Hally for years, there's a certain rapport that should exist between the three, and it does - all three men behave as old friends should, knowing certain boundaries between appropriateness and offense and discovering others as circumstances require. Glover and Boatman have formed a key bond, almost a true sense of kinship, that flourishes in the moments they share together, while Denham and Boatman seem quite secure in their relationship as well.
Yet this production of "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys falters in the one relationship that must succeed for the play to have its full blistering impact: that between Hally and his surrogate father, Sam. Hally's real father, crippled and alcoholic, is as destructive to his son as he is to himself, yet the resulting bond that formed between Hally and Sam is never accurately depicted. Glover does lack a bit of the warm paternal quality that might help establish this, but Denham keeps too many of his choices at arm's length.
Apparently uncomfortable with the societal extremes Hally must face, Denham occupies the middle emotional ground throughout. While a valid choice given the material, this robs the more devastating confrontational scenes of the impact needed to force Hally to choose one over the other. When, at the end of the play, Hally has no choice but to face impossible truths about his present and past, Denham's work suggests Hally will forever be lost in the middle, never to be like his father nor Sam.
What, then, has Hally learned? The answer to this question is never clear, and not helping Denham discover the solution is Price's one critical directorial mistake. Fugard's work triumphs throughout, buoying even the more emotional (but less wholly effective) scenes here with the power they need to continue to carry the production, even when other forces are working against them. Denham and Price give more focus to moments less in need of highlighting, such as when Hally contrives to write his school paper using ballroom dancing as a metaphor for race relations, one of the most brilliantly executed in the play.
Otherwise, Price's work is fine; he keeps the play from dragging down when the exposition is heavy, and is able to elicit some excellent performances from all three actors at one time or another. Though Glover gets to plumb greater emotional depths as Sam, Boatman gives the evening's most consistent performance in the play's least textually showy role. With a soft sense of humor masking his deeper feelings, Boatman brings to Willie the type of tortured uncertainty and indecision that would boost Denham's portrayal.
John Lee Beatty's designs for the slightly battered St. Georges Park Tea Room set, Peter Kaczorowski's subtle mood lighting, and Jane Greenwood's costumes help complete the picture of a world where, unsurprisingly, almost nothing is black and white. Their work grounds this "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys in reality, while still successfully creating a place fantastic enough to fight - and perhaps even win - centuries-old battles against racism in less than two hours.
And though the result of that battle this time around is less conclusive than is perhaps ideal for the theatrical realm, the strength of Fugard's conviction remains enough to carry the day. Despite its other faults, this production is still effective in speaking to the real world; despite significant strides, there's still a lot of work to be done in assuring the demolition of boundaries that can keep all members of the human family from uniting as one. And so the dance goes on.