If you're looking for a quick trip to a faraway place, Joseph Adler and GableStage can arrange a 90-minute journey to an entirely different planet courtesy of their latest production, Master Harold ... and the boys. Athol Fugard's drama is set not only a half-century ago but in apartheid South Africa, a distant Anglocentric culture decidedly foreign to most Americans. But as the story unfolds, its subject is all too familiar: racial prejudice.
The setting is a "tea room," really no more than a scruffy luncheonette, with a scuffed linoleum floor of black and white squares, an antique jukebox, some battered wooden chairs, and a rather forlorn Formica counter. Outside, the rain streams down on the windowpanes and the thick, leafy vegetation that looms beyond. Inside, two heavily accented African waiters, in formal white jackets, go about their chores, chat, and joke. The older man, Sam, is a former champion ballroom dancer who counsels his younger co-worker, Willie, about an upcoming dance contest. Soon they are interrupted by the arrival of the owner's teenage son, fresh from a day at private school and still in his uniform. Willie defers to the lad as "Master Harold," but Sam calls him "Hally," as he has done since the boy's childhood. Hally banters with Sam and reminisces about their happy times together, but a phone call to Hally from his mother turns the atmosphere in the tea room as stormy as the weather outside. It seems that Hally's racist, alcoholic father is being released from the hospital after an extended stay. Hally -- who, to say the least, has conflicted feelings about his father -- lashes out at his mother and bitterly berates his father. Hoping to calm Hally down, Sam, the good Samaritan, tries to intervene; this only infuriates Hally further, prompting a sudden conflict between the white teen and the black worker that uncovers long-buried racial antagonism.
Like much of Fugard's work, Master Harold is a character study, with extended gusts of dialogue and a simple, spare plotline. The play has its basis in relations and incidents from Fugard's own life, which gives it a good deal of power and depth despite its brevity -- it's only 90 minutes long, with no intermission. First produced on Broadway in 1982, Master Harold followed several other Fugard works that had already made his mark in New York in the mid-1970s -- Blood Knot and Boesman & Lena, both of which discussed racial conflicts and featured textured, moving portraits of black South Africans.
The GableStage production features assured, understated direction from Adler, who, as usual, zeroes in on the adrenalized dramatic high points but also finds quite a lot of humor and tenderness. Tim Connelly's detailed set, Jeff Quinn's soft, subtle lighting, and Michael J. Hoffman's atmospheric sound and music design greatly abet the story's mood. Adler's cast is skillful but with mixed results. As Sam, Paul Bodie dominates the stage with a powerful, dignified, nuanced performance, and he's ably abetted by Rodney Gardiner as Sam's erratic sidekick, Willie. These two actors are thoroughly watchable even at their characters' most mundane moments and in the early part of the story have found a nice comedic rapport, working off each other like Martin and Lewis. Unfortunately John Bixler's Hally doesn't fully realize the play's demands, and in a three-character show, that's a significant problem. As he demonstrated at the Caldwell last season in The Last Sunday in June, Bixler is a skillful, appealing performer, but here he's less effective. That Bixler looks a full decade older than the teenager he plays is not his fault, but he hasn't found a way to temper the maturity and authority he brings to the role with naiveté or empathy. Sure, Hally is meant to be an insufferable little know-it-all, but his nasty side is tempered by his youthful insouciance and a deep fondness for Sam. Instead Bixler comes across as disconnected -- he seems to be acting on his own, not with Bodie -- and once the phone call arrives and Hally gets riled up, Bixby shifts into a strident shouting mode and never backs off from it. As a result, the play's point gets skewed: This is meant to be a blunt tale of buried racism, but it's also a poignant display of how damaged hearts inadvertently recapitulate the sins of their fathers. Hally's not just a tyrant in the making and a victim -- Bixby gets these right -- he's also supposed to be a likable boy/man who, in his fear, destroys what's best in his life. In this production, it's hard to see why Sam put up with this creep for so long.
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In addition to its regular run, Master Harold will be presented to thousands of Miami-Dade County high school students in a series of special matinees. One can only wonder what the student responses will be. Certainly the kids will get a solid jolt of dramatic power, but I suspect they may draw diametrically opposed lessons from it. White kids may view Master Harold as a cautionary tale of the perils of prejudice, but black kids might just see this tale as reaffirmation of age-old street wisdom: White people can't be trusted except for one thing -- to play the race card. Either way, this play should give the young'uns a quick trip to a faraway land that really isn't so distant after all. Then and there, as here and now, no good deed goes unpunished.