BWW Review: MASTER HAROLD...AND THE BOYS at Shea's 710 Theatre
For it's second season offering the Shaw Festival and Shea's 710 Theatre in Buffalo chose to present Athol Fugard's MASTER HAROLD....AND THE BOYS. The production was a hit during Shaw's 2016 Festival in Niagara on the Lake and besides Buffalo, it recently was presented in Montreal.
While this highly polished production has earned many accolades it fell a bit flat on opening night in Buffalo, having been delayed one day due to International visa issues. Fugard's story revolves around a small cafe in 1950 South Africa where two employees, Willie and Sam are keeping shop on a rainy day. The owner's son, Hally( aka Master Harold), stops in after school to learn that his ailing alcoholic father is to be discharged from the hospital that same day. Sam has been a mentor of sorts to Hally, sharing and engaging him in his school lessons, aiding him in coping with his father's alcoholic binges, and serving as a diversion from his unhappy home life. Despite the racial and social divides of Apartheid, the two appear to have forged an unlikely bond that later becomes shattered. The imagery in Fugard's writing is both subtle and straight forward, as Sam builds Hally a makeshift kite to deter his unhappy thoughts during a rough patch in his childhood. The kite shockingly soars and Hally is in awe at unlikely flight
Andre Sills strongly anchors the production as Sam, the more responsible of the two cafe workers. His nuanced portrayal oozes confidence and wisdom beyond his station in life. Sills is utterly believable in conveying an inner humanity that is challenged by his relationship with young Hally, played by James Daly. Daly's soft spoken voice and accent was often a challenge to hear and understand from the rear of the theatre, unaided by any amplification. His pouting nature and exasperation with school, compounded with his anger towards his alcoholic father aptly make him a troublesome character to like.
Allan Louis delivers a fine performance as Willie, who is more simple minded than Sam, and is prone to physical abuse towards the women in his life. Louis buffers the drama with his light hearted nature, as he attempts to learn to dance for an upcoming dance contest. Always the helpful one, Sam intervenes to teach Willie how to dance, while at the same time how to become a better man.
The challenge with this play lies in how Fugard tells the story. The action unfolds as an overly long, slow burn. The single 90 minute act meanders in the middle, as Sam and Hally discuss literature and their idea of a perfect author of magnitude. The audience was not fully engaged until the pivotal moment when the relationship between Sam and Hally changes from mentor and friend to privileged white shop owner and subservient Black shop keeper. Hally's breakdown and rage is taken out towards Sam and the intensity between Daly and Sills becomes appropriately uncomfortable. Fugard shakes his audience to the core and Stage Director Philip Akin's best work is seen in these moments, as all three men are at complete odds with each other. Hally insists on now being referred to as Master Harold, and the the bond between Sam and him is shattered. The quiet shock in Hally's body language as Sam and Willie confront him was mesmerizing. If only there were more moments like this throughout the evening.
It was a pleasure to see a fully realized set on the 710 Main stage. Set and Costume Designer Peter Hartwell sees to every detail, not surprising given the high artistic standards seen at the Shaw Festival. Hopefully the moderate sized audience portends well for the partnership between Shaw and 710 Main. When only presenting one play per season thus far, I hope the chosen production will fit the bill for this burgeoning union. Buffalo audiences can be a fickle bunch and while a challenging piece of theatre is needed to balance any good season, a more mainstream classic may better serve to draw in audiences in the future.