Review: 'MASTER HAROLD'...AND THE BOYS at Irish Classical Theatre


By: Nov. 20, 2023
Review: 'MASTER HAROLD'...AND THE BOYS at Irish Classical Theatre

As the audience grew restless awaiting the start of the play, the near twenty minute delay had me wondering if there would even be a production. Luckily, the play started and the wait, though unexplained, was worth it. Buffalo's Irish Classical Theatre's production of Athol Fugard's riveting "MASTER HAROLD"... AND THE BOYS proved to be a captivating afternoon.

Set in a Tea Room in 1950 South Africa, the three character drama begins with a storm outside, as waiters Sam and Willie begin their daily routine. But no one can ever predict a typical day when Apartheid is looming. Willie is practicing for a dance competition with the woman he regularly beats and Sam coaches him on the subtleties of dance and romance. Young Hally (aka Master Harold) bursts in from the rain, after his school day. His parents own the Tea Room, and over the year he has bonded with the men.

Fugard's play is subtle at times, yet dramatically complex with it's undertows of racial inequality, social class distinctions and race relations. Willie is a simple minded yet thoughtful and deeply emotional. Sam is more worldly, thanks to years of life experience, and an impromptu education from Hally as he teaches Sam what he has just learned in school. The three live a kind of codependent existence, as their daily rituals seemed predictable. But then it all changes.

As the 100 minute play unfolds, we learn that Hally's homelife has been plagued a hospitalized drunken father. Sam has been a father figure to Hally, as much as a black man could be in 1950 South Africa. When Hally's home life crumbles, he turns on the men, switching from friend to boss. And soon this boss becomes a nasty entitled white man who belittles and ridicules these two black men.

Gerald Ramsey gives a touching portrayal of Willie, the  unsophisticated  but dutiful employee who always knows his place at his job. Ramsey's  struggle with the horrific turn in Hally's behavior is poignant and beautifully acted.

Roderick Garr embodies Sam with inner strength and grace. His story telling was captivating and it was clear he had formed a deep bond with Hally. Their ultimate confrontation was intense and superbly acted. Fugard's writing elicits such heartbreak  at this point, which  could only have been achieved  thanks to his perfect backstory for these two.

Samuel Fesmire is young Hally, aka Master Harold. He is a petulant, entitled young man who thinks he can be master and friend, but is not good at either. Fesmire brings a bounding youthful energy to the role, which is a nice contrast to the aging two men. Prone to speak loudly, or perhaps too excitedly, Fesmire does some fine work recalling his happier days with Sam. But as he struggles with his father's alcoholism, he takes it out on Sam with an unexpected ferocity. Sam is now a broken man, Hally is visibly shaken by his own actions and Willie is literally stricken with grief on the floor. This is acting at it's finest.

Director Aaron Mays guides the men with a nice sense of pacing. Daily routines, workday drudgery and pleasant memories help to build the drama slowly, so when the intensity peaks, the climax is jarring. It's clear that the actors have spent time building a tight relationship. 

Scenic Design by David Dwyer is interesting and simply effective. Dialect coach Jennifer Toohey made sure the actors were spot on with their dialects and accents.

"MASTER HAROLD"...AND THE BOYS plays at Buffalo's Irish Classical Theatre through December 3, 2023. Contact for more information.