A mas­ter­ful tale of ‘Harold’

Ex­plores apartheid era

Chicago Sun-Times - - Showcase - BY HEDY WEISS

Pay close at­ten­tion to the punc­tu­a­tion in the ti­tle of Athol Fu­gard’s 1982 play, “ ‘Mas­ter Harold’. . . and the Boys,” now re­ceiv­ing a winning re­vival at TimeLine The­atre. It tells you much of what you need to know about the painful hu­man dy­nam­ics at work in this luminous drama — a work born out of the racial di­vide in apartheid-era South Africa, but one that re­mains vivid as a med­i­ta­tion on love, loss, anger, en­ti­tle­ment and pride.

The Mas­ter Harold whose name ap­pears in quotes is more fa­mil­iarly known as Hally (Nate Burger). He is a smart but deeply un­happy, un­der-achiev­ing 16-year-old white boy. His mother runs the St. Ge­orge’s Tea Room. His fa­ther is an an­gry, crip­pled al­co­holic, for­ever in and out of hos­pi­tals and bars, and long a painful em­bar­rass­ment to his son.

As for the “boys” of the ti­tle, they are the two adult black men who are wait­ers in the tea room. Ever since Hally was a tot, Sam (Al­fred H. Wil­son), the older of the two, has been some­thing of a sur­ro­gate fa­ther to him, while Wil­lie (Daniel Bryant) might be the older brother.

But the time is 1950, and while such bonds be­tween whites and blacks ex­ist, they can­not be fully ac­knowl­edged. And the in­sid­i­ous na­ture of deeply en­trenched racism is such that even the most in­ti­mate con­nec­tions can be de­stroyed in a heart­beat. And so they are here, as a se­ries of events trig­gers an out­burst by the youth that will rup­ture years of shared af­fec­tion and learn­ing be­tween him and Sam.

Fu­gard is a writer of charm and hu­mor and heart who has great in­sight into hu­man be­hav­ior. More teacher and re­vealer of truth than “so­cial re­former,” the wide im­pact of his plays is rooted in their hu­man­is­tic spirit as op­posed to stri­dent pol­i­tick­ing. He also has a won­der­ful gift for weav­ing me­taphors into the fab­ric of his sto­ries. Here, a ball­room danc­ing com­pe­ti­tion is chief among them, as is a mem­ory of kite-fly­ing and a most en­gag­ing ex­er­cise in­volv­ing a list of he­roes.

The TimeLine ac­tors (neatly adapt­ing SouthAfric­an ac­cents) move un­err­ingly un­der Jonathan Wil­son’s fer­vent di­rec­tion. Burger, a se­nior at Loy­ola Uni­ver­sity, ex­pertly cap­tures Hally’s half-baby, half-man volatil­ity. And Bryant, with his bril­liant smile and high en­ergy, cap­tures his char­ac­ter’s quick­sil­ver spirit.

But it is Sam who is the moral cen­ter of this play. And Wil­son — as a man of ex­pe­ri­ence, in­ner grace and quiet an­guish who is driven to ex­plode — is ideal. He is a true gen­tle­man and un­her­alded “mas­ter” in this “bloody aw­ful world.”

Al­fred H. Wil­son (left) and Daniel Bryant help Nate Burger with his home­work in “ ‘Mas­ter Harold’ . . . and the Boys.”

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