Serving Up Sizzling Human Spirit: “Master Harold”… and the Boys” Has Segal Crowd Ordering Seconds

Human relationships run the gamut from inspiring connectedness and touching camaraderie to downright ugly and frightening. Political and social positions of power sometimes dictate the tone of said relationships, although ideally strength of character and strong values would win out in the end if
this were in fact an ideal world. But 1950 Port Elizabeth, South Africa presented some special challenges for a society whose individuals’ pre-existing bonds would be complicated by birthright and background, as the pretty universally reviled system of apartheid was taking hold. Athol Fugard, who grew up in this environment, penned the interplay between a seventeen year-old wide-eyed armchair revolutionary son of Caucasian descent of a restaurant owner and two of the family’s Black servants who “mind the store,” (but with whom the teenager has had lifelong personal relationships), while his father is away adjusting to becoming a post-Second World War amputee, and continuing his unabated, if not undistinguished, tenure as a hardcore alcoholic and authoritarian bigoted paternal figure, in a rehabilitation hospital.

One can sense the emotionally painful character of the dysfunctional family model from which Hally
stems, before such a term was en vogue, as it builds gradually whilst these three individuals deal with
the lot that they’ve been given in life, and the big dreams that they carry inside. For Sam and Willie,
given texture and brought to life with unmitigated heart, fierce pride and outright panache by the
supremely talented André Sills and Allan Louis, respectively, the disparate in personality but equally
fascinating personality portraits of two men coping with an ominous, foreboding shadow of political and
cultural oppression sweeping over their country like an impending raincloud of voracious proportions.
As Sam and Willie tend shop, practice ballroom dance moves for Willie’s benefit, and exchange banter
and good – though sometimes tense – humour, in out of the rain (a literal raincloud has made this a slow
business day at the eatery) comes Hally – young and energetic, saddled with homework, imbued with
hope for the future, and full of grandiose notions of a better world to come. Hally has been enjoying the
wealthy, and, to be blunt, White privilege of receiving a solid and fundamental academic education,
whereas Sam was not able to do so. Yet Sam seems to be more finely attuned to the ways of the world
and the quest for knowledge and truth than the young man with thick textbooks and school supplies
weighing him down. Sam took Hally under his wing a long time ago, a boy whose father could not be a
true parental role model to him, and had frankly deteriorated into a burden due to his substance
dependence issues, medical problems and questionable character all rolled into one.

Director Philip Akin takes the acclaimed Obsidian Theatre (Toronto) production that wowed last year’s
Shaw Festival crowd to its unabashedly gripping, but perhaps inevitable, climax with all the grace of a
couple of social dance partners effortlessly tangoing across a shimmering ballroom – irony noted. Set
and costume designer Peter Hartwell exquisitely takes you back to the crystallized ideal of malt shop
bliss of postwar Baby Boomer adolescence, complete with jukebox, Coca-Cola and Cadbury
advertisements and the feel that it’s the compartmentalized equivalent of the shopping mall for youth
of the 1940s and ‘50s. Valerie Moore choreographs the dapper dance sequences with the grace and
mood lightening mirth that are most welcome when the tone eventually grows somber via the
proverbial fly in the ointment so generously served up by the play’s invisible antagonist. Kevin Lamotte’s
lighting design sets the tone for nostalgia and warmth, and eventually, an uneasy, admittedly reticent
acclimation to a political system with which most of us will feel grateful to have not been intimately
acquainted.

Hally’s father’s impending and unexpected return is the true vinegar spill into fresh baby milk that give
neither Hally nor Sam nor Willie reason to celebrate, but rather bubbles up angst and hideous repressed
emotions to the surface for the troubled prodigal son, nearly to the point of complete character
meltdown. Sam and Willie are equally lovable in their respective brimming-with-sharp-wisdom and
submissive but introspective ways; Hally is flawed but one can almost not help but feel for him – well, at
least until the cracks and fissures in his doe-eyed frenetic optimism begin to appear. Masterfully put
together – no pun intended – flawlessly acted by all three strong stage presences, steered behind the
scenes with shiny veneer but undeniable heart, “Master Harold”… and the Boys is a powerful romp, and
then a powerful stomp, that will shake the sociocultural foundation of anyone fortunate enough to
watch it unfold. And the Segal Centre has luckily afforded us this opportunity until February 11th.

 

Visit segalcentre.org for more information or call the box office at (514) 739-7944 .

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