Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Based on autobiographical events in Fugard's life, the play, which first premiered in 1982, focuses on the 17-year-old Harold, affectionately called Hally, and the two black men who work at the tea shop his family owns (beautifully depicted by scenic designer Jason Sherwood.) One rainy afternoon Hally comes to the shop after school to do his homework while Sam and Willie are busy with their chores. Over the first half of the single-act, 115-minute play, Fugard lays out the details of the relationships Hally has with these two black men, with occasional outbursts from Hally that allow us to see how racism has played a part in his upbringing.
In the second half, Hally is unable to hold back his anger as he rages against his invalid father and his submissive mother and takes out his frustrations on Sam and Willie. Also, while he considers these two older black men his friends, and even though he is much younger than both men, since he is a white man and they are black men who work for his family in South Africa he still has control over them. As the insults and condescending racial remarks mount, the calm Sam attempts to warn and counsel Hally about the line he is getting very close to crossing. That only stirs up the deep-seated racism within Hally until it boils to the surface and threatens to destroy the relationship the two have.
Fugard's work is very impactful and expertly written. However, the first hour may cause some audience members to shift in their seats as it could be slightly confusing as to where the play is going due to the endless chatter from the rambunctious Hally, the talk of ballroom dancing by Willie and Sam, and the somewhat thick South African accents. However, Fugard's piece is a slow burn with occasional glimpses in the first half of the piece into Hally's racial thoughts and statements that come out in full force in the second half. The last 30 minutes are some of the best written in any drama, with actions, imagery and comments that tie into everything that came before.
Throughout the play, we come to learn that both Sam and Willie not only work for Hally's parents but they are also two of his closest friends, and maybe his only friends. The three men also have an interesting relationship in which the schooled Hally has informed and instructed the two adults of things he has learned in class while Sam has taught Hally in the ways of life. The close friendships among these three men are well exhibited under Kent Gash's direction, though I have a slight issue with how Hally is portrayed.
Ian Eaton exudes charm, strength, dignity, and a calming presence as Sam. He infuses this caring man with warmth and a deep, truthful connection to Hally. When Hally berates Sam with hurtful words, Eaton expertly depicts the humiliation and pain Sam feels. Eaton is delivering a moving, dignified and truthful performance that brought tears to my eyes.
Oliver Prose looks somewhat older than the 17-year-old Hally and he occasionally instills the role with a childlike nature and a cheerful and excitable attitude that makes him, at times, appear to be much younger than the character should be. Prose sometimes also pushes too hard in depicting Hally's emotional outbursts. Those criticisms make the play, at times, have a slight imbalance among the three characters due to the uneven nature in how they are being portrayed. Fortunately, Prose manages to do a good job in illustrating the suffering that Hally feels when reality and the consequences of his actions set in toward the end of the play.
In the supporting role of Willie, Odera Adimorah brings a sweet nature to this man who, while he has a bit of a temper and a tempestuous relationship with a woman named Hilda, steps in to help when the relationship between Sam and Hally comes to a crossroad.
"Master Harold" ... and the boys is a coming of age drama that also serves as Fugard's attack on apartheid. It's a play with a powerful message that puts a face on apartheid by showing how power, privilege, and social attitudes are the impetus for racist beliefs and feelings. Through beautiful prose and succinct imagery, Fugard shows how words can sting, actions can have consequences, and that when you're on dangerous ground someone could get hurt. Arizona Theatre Company's production is a moving testament to Fugard's beautiful play.
"Master Harold" ... and the boys runs through March 1, 2020, at Arizona Theatre Company at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling 602-2566995.
Director: Kent Gash
*Member, Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States