"MASTER HAROLD" . . . AND THE BOYS
Argyle Gargoyle Productions
at the Edgewater Theatre
Hally, barely into his teens, shares with his mother the proprietorship of the Saint George's Park Tea Room. They also share terrible memories of his drunken invalid father, a man who fell as short in his role of father as the shabby cafe falls short of its name. Hally's only friends are Sam and Willie, in whose company Hally sought refuge as a child. They now work as waiters in the cafe, but their relationship with Hally is substantially unchanged--Hally patronizes these adult males with the arrogance of youth, while they regard him with the indulgence of older siblings for the baby of the family. This idyllic existence cannot last, however, for this is Port Elizabeth on the cape of South Africa in 1950, Sam and Willie are black, and Hally is white.
What precipitates the inevitable loss of innocence is the news that Hally's father, no healthier in mind or body but stubbornly insistent on coming home, is leaving the hospital. Hally, torn between affection and disgust for his father, turns on his surrogate parents, spitting in Sam's face and insisting on being addressed henceforth as "Master Harold."
Athol Fugard's "Master Harold" . . . and the Boys has traditionally been read as an allegory of racial inequities in South Africa. So have virtually all of Fugard's plays, whether they've been as overt as Statement After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act or as covert as Hello and Goodbye. The situation in Africa may not have altered much since 1982, when Master Harold was written, but nowadays we are far more aware of apartheid and its evils. This may be the reason that director Kelly Loudon has chosen in Argyle Gargoyle's production to emphasize the relations between the characters. This Master Harold seems less a story of social tensions than of a boy's painful initiation into manhood.
It was a wise choice. The same media inundation that made the Vietnam war everyday and thus easy to ignore has also inured us to the suffering in African nations--or in any nation, for that matter, including our own. Reducing these sweeping issues to a microcosm of two men and a child brings the point home more poignantly than any indignant editorial or agitprop slogan could. We all remember the shock of first learning that there were people with whom we could not go out and play. We know in our guts that anything is bad that forces a lonely child to sit by himself on a "for whites only" bench.
Argyle Gargoyle's production, recently moved from its south-side home at Daley College to the Edgewater Theatre on Bryn Mawr, is up to the challenge of this intense drama. Here from the original production are Sammy Oshin, playing Willie with a smile big enough to light the darkest continent, and Scott Sandoe, who manages to be perfectly convincing as the adolescent Hally though his program credits indicate that he is well beyond voting age. New to the cast, in the difficult role of Sam, is Arch Harmon. He is understandably somewhat less comfortable in his role than his two compatriots are in theirs, but delivers a solid, well-focused performance nonetheless.
Set designer Cheryl Whitmore has created a restaurant so real in its genteel squalor that one could walk in and order a soda--but maybe you'd better check the glass it's served in. The other design elements in this production reinforce the impression of decaying grandeur, of a place where nothing can grow but hope for a better future.