Thursday, April 5, 2012

"Master Harold"...and the Boys Triumphs at Dramaworks

Dramaworks has produced yet another classic, in keeping with its mission statement of "theatre to think about." In fact this riveting story is heightened by the Director Bill Hayes' passionate belief that this drama and ones like next season's A Raisin in the Sun need to be performed again and again while we, as a society, still suffer prejudice and intolerance. This new production, in its new home on Clematis Street, solidifies Dramaworks place as the premier serious theater in Southeast Florida. I call it Broadway South.

So much is packed into this production that the simplicity of the plot belies its profound intensity, the action slowly building and escalating on two phone calls. Sam (W. Paul Bodie) and Willie (Summer Hill Seven) are servants in the early years of South Africa's apartheid system, 1950, in a St. Georges Park Tea Room where all the action takes place on a windswept rainy Port Elizabeth afternoon. Sam, while not having the benefit of a formal education is nevertheless possessed of a strong native intelligence and kindly disposition, while Willie is somewhat slow, more sensitive and dependent on Sam's guidance. They are casually cleaning the room, but mostly they are playfully teasing each other about an upcoming ballroom dance competition. Enter the son of the couple who owns the tea room, a 17 year old student , Harold, known to Willie and Sam as "Hally" (Jared McGuire). The off stage parents loom significantly in the plot, particularly the father who is both crippled and an alcoholic, an embarrassment to Hally.

The three on-stage characters have a close relationship, even a loving one. In a twist of societal relationships, Sam has become sort of an ersatz father to Hally, recognizing the boy's conflicted feelings towards his father. Sam tells Hally about his mother's phone call. His father is coming home from the hospital. This is strongly denied as a possibility by Hally until he receives the first of two phone calls from his mother. He implores his mother to keep the father there (not wanting him home).

Hally's demeanor changes after the phone call. He becomes obsessed with his homework assignment which is to write about a significant cultural event and Sam suggests the upcoming dance competition as being a worthy subject. Hally is instantly caught up in the possibilities; with the dance competition becoming a metaphor for a perfect world, where people glide in unison, without colliding with others, where there is no hurt or abuse. This good time is interrupted by a second phone call in which Hally's mother tells him that his father insisted on leaving the hospital and now he is expected home immediately after locking up the Tea Room. It is at this turning point that the play goes from benign to dark. Hally is consumed with anger, knowing the consequences and the humiliation of his father's return, and the multigenerational nature of racism rears its head as Sam suddenly becomes the target of "Master Harold." Sam at first feels betrayed. Although this confrontation becomes volatile, the essential goodness of Sam prevails at the end while Hally departs into the symbolically stormy night. Life goes on. Willie and Sam rehearse dance steps to the strains of Sarah Vaughn on the juke box, Willie wanting to believe that nothing has really happened. They have their dignity at the end.

This drama works on so many levels, one hardly knows where to begin. The consequences of family abuse and shame, apartheid, racism in general and how that reverberates throughout society, witness the recent Trayvon Martin tragedy or the virulent anti-Obamanism that seems to be part of today's political landscape, and the multigenerational nature of racism and family abuse. The abusive, alcoholic father in literature and theater is pervasive. The impact on their families is always disastrous and a son's need to find substitute fathers is profound. And what happens when the substitute father is perceived as your inferior? Ironically, who is really in bondage, Hally or Sam?

The innocence and even nobility of Sam is sorely tested by Hally's demeaning and malevolent invectives, but Hally is caught in the irresolvable conundrum of having to become a man at the expense of treating noble Sam as society (and Hally's father) expects a white man to treat a servant in the system of apartheid. And how different is that from even post Civil War America where Afro American's were merely stereotypes and those of us who grew up in the south, such as my wife, were accustomed to segregated schools, buses, bathrooms, lunch counters, everyplace one went, well into the 20th century. Not surprisingly, Sam mentions Abraham Lincoln as one of history's most significant figures, Fugard's veiled reference to America's race problem. But Sam also mentions Jesus Christ as such a figure and in Sam's goodness and forgiveness and careful nurturing of Hally he too is saying "forgive them for they know not what they do." This is a very autobiographical play. Fugard was 17 in 1950 as well, and this work is his exculpation of the guilt he felt being raised in the system of apartheid.

It is a delicate play to stage successfully. So much depends on the nuances of the set and the acting, the lighting, the ambiance. One thing out of place would be easily noticed and distracting. Here Dramaworks excels as usual, selecting the ideal actors and relying on the behind the scenes talents of the people supporting them.

Under Director Bill Hayes' careful direction, the three actors shine. The pacing of the play is just about perfect. My criteria of pacing is to be completely unaware of time passing, the audience caught in each moment, everything seeming to happen at precisely the right time and place on stage. I love the metaphor of the dance (of life), a leitmotif that weaves throughout the play, Hayes highlighting those at appropriate moments.

Jared McGuire who plays Hally has played the part before. He knows Hally well and although Mr. McGuire is older than 17 (no seventeen year old actor is going to have the experience to play this pivotal role so well), he passes as such, his boyishness coming through in his relationship with Sam as well as the raging testosterone that gives rise to his misguided attempt at "being a man" -- his trying to become one in a corrupt society and a dysfunctional family. This is a difficult role to play and McGuire nailed it.

W. Paul Brodie turned in a bravura performance as the compassionate Sam, a person who is sorely tested but emerges noble at the end. He is on stage 99% of the time and while there he is a force, either of drama, sadness, or, even laughter in his kidding of Willie and sometimes Hally.

Summer Hill Seven's portrayal of dim-witted Willie is perfect, even his glances at Sam and Hally during their confrontations. But Willie lives in the dream world, looking forward to the dance competition, reconciliation with his girl friend who he has abused (all of society is caught up in being abused and passing it on), and Seven effectively plays this role.

The scenic design by Michael Amico is exacting, recreating what a 1950 Tea Room in South Africa must have looked like, using the full stage of the new Don & Ann Brown Theatre to its greatest advantage. Even the detail of making a real on stage cream soda is portrayed. Everything is so authentic. Outside, upstage, the pane glass windows of the Tea Room reflect the falling rain, the dreary reality that the Tea Room symbolizes, and, if I'm not mistaken, the rain becoming more intense as the denouement of the play approaches and Hally goes out into the storm.

A wonderful play by a master playwright, performed by one of America's most professional regional theater companies equals dazzling drama.