Growing up is Hard for Master Harold a Struggle Well Portrayed on Falcon’s Stage
Posted On July 8, 2017
Review by Ken Stern of Master Harold…and the Boys: Falcon Theatre
In the best of all worlds, in an ideal setting, life is hard enough for teenagers growing into maturity, reaching towards their authentic adult human self. In the real world, fathers are crippled, physically and mentally as war veterans, ruined by alcohol, and shrunken by acquiescing to apartheid. That is true for us looking in the mirror or looking at 1950 Port Elizabeth, South Africa through the lens of playwright Athol Fugard’s 1982 Tony winning play, on stage at the Falcon Theatre through May 20th.
Go see “Master Harold” . . . And the Boys for a look into the past. See it for our present moment. See it for the production and the strong performances of the ensemble cast.
The lights come up on Willie (Deondra Means) and Sam (Ken Early), impeccably dressed in white suit coats and shirts and black pants and ties, who are employees killing time in a tea room devoid of customers on a rainy afternoon. They’re long time buds, middle aged, regular Joes, Willie dreaming of a trophy in the upcoming regional dance contest. Sam helps, coaching on dance steps (“Look like you’re enjoying it.” Suffering Willie: “I wasn’t”), and advising on love and marriage: “Don’t hit your wife if you want her to be your dance partner.” There is gentle humor between these two friends, and the audience laughed on cue. These men care for each other. They have been friends for a long time.
Deondra Means’ Willie is a plain, working-class-hero type of guy. Means’ performance is as solid as the character he plays, and being human, offers a humorous dimension. He was appreciated by the audience.
Soon Hally (Rupert Spraul), enters. A high school senior, in dark blue blazer and a tie, he is the son of the tea room’s owner, an Afrikaaner, white, and also long acquainted with Willie and Sam. Listen as well as watch closely, for this play is filled more with ideas than action. The relationships are what matter.
Spraul glides in, at home in his mother’s store. He is smooth, verbally and physically agile, confident, the epitome of white privilege. Did that term exist in 1950? He is youthful, exuberant. Spraul’s performance, along with his mop of hair that he occasionally pushes off his forehead, is pitch perfect, including the accent. Credit dialect coach Kate Glasheen for so solidly placing the audience in South Africa through her work with the cast.
Getting ready for exams, drafting a writing assignment, Hally bubbles over with his classroom knowledge. He quizzes Sam on “men of magnitude,” Hally’s are thinkers, scientists: Darwin, Einstein. Hally has obviously been sharing his lessons with Sam for years. While Sam doesn’t have a formal education, he is quietly undaunted, naming Lincoln and Gandhi as men of magnitude, though Hally dismisses each’s accomplishments.
The conversation soon makes it clear that Hally has been raised as much by Willie and Sam, as Hally recounts visits to their servants’ quarters as a boy. Early’s Sam has a quiet dignity, and the solidness from knowing and trusting one’s self. Sam is a teacher and mentor as much as a father, quietly challenging and coaching Hally to consider higher, rather than lower options.
Hally’s parents, while not present, are influential characters. His mom called before the play opened, and Hally’s first question is about his dad, in the hospital, again, a war amputee and also an alcoholic. Repeated calls from mom confirm that she is bringing the father home. Her last call does more than interrupt the afternoon’s mood: Hally is transformed. Without any outward notice, Hally has made a monumental decision. While critical, and furious with his father’s physical and emotional debilitations, Hally embraces his father, and the status quo of apartheid South Africa.
He instructs Sam that from now on he is to address him as “Master Harold.” This is a direct challenge to Sam, and their close, historic relationship. Sam grasps the magnitude of the moment and quietly warns Hally “If you make me say it once, I’ll never call you anything else again.” Even as Sam challenges Hally, he works to save Hally’s humanity. A tense scene grows tenser as Hally struggles to choose between his father and his friend, the idealistic hopes of youth and the reality of 1950 South Africa.
But, good father that Sam is, he gives Hally another chance. Youth that he is, Hally is not able to grow into the moment. Changing the future starts with self-made changes. And, if any of us are not up for it, we walk away.
Sam and Willie? They entered dancing. At the end, their steps are in unison. They know the song and the dance.
Ted Weil, director, producer, lighting and set designer and constructor, Falcon’s jack of all trades, has once again superbly led and supported a production into its realization on the Falcon stage.
Performances are Thursday through Saturday through May 20th at 8:00 PM at the Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth Street, Newport, Kentucky 41071; Box Office: 513-479-6783. For more information, go to falcontheater.net.