Damnation via faint praise is always a risk when writing about a strong production of a venerable play that’s been staged many times before. “Master Harold”… and the Boys, the most openly autobiographical of Athol Fugard’s many apartheid dramas, was too hot for his home country when it first appeared in 1982; it was the first of his plays to have its world premiere outside of South Africa. It bowed at Yale Repertory Theatre with Zakes Mokae in the role of Sam, the elder of two black servants in the employ of a white family in Port Elizabeth circa 1950. It’s a gloomy afternoon, and the wet weather has left the small cafe he and his younger colleague Willie are operating (on behalf of their white employers) without customers. So they practice their steps for an upcoming ballroom dance competition, at least until Hally, the 17-year-old son of their bosses, drops by after school.
The boy’s father is an abusive drunk and a cripple; it’s Hally’s mother who works to keep the family solvent. When Hally was younger he embraced Sam as a favorable alternative to his own dissolute father, though Sam’s skin made him the social inferior of the schoolboy he’s nurturing—an awareness that has began to dawn on Hally in his adolescence.
All these details are drawn from the playwright’s own life, and the ease with which he grafts them onto his characters without a palpable whiff of exposition is one of the reasons his work still gets produced all over the world. Fugard is in his mid-80s now, having outlasted apartheid by 24 years, and still writing, too. But “Master Harold” remains one of his sturdiest and most haunting creations. And Ryan Rilette’s closely observed, unhurried production is both a worthy tribute to the material’s resilience and another superb showcase for the gifts of Craig Wallace—a versatile all-arounder who’s been so consistently good for so long that it would be easy to undervalue him. As Sam, he lets us see every particle of Hally’s disrespect play across his face, and his residual affection for the boy does battle with his indignation.
Ro Boddie’s role as Willie, Sam’s younger colleague, requires him to silently polish the floor of Meghan Raham’s set for long stretches, but he’s alert and attentive to every move and countermove between Sam and Hally. Nick Fruit is just a bit too eager as the latter, a spoiled child who has absorbed his parents’ prejudice in spite of Sam’s kindness to him. Fugard’s elegant, unpreachy writing, and Wallace’s generosity as as scene partner, put Fruit out of his depth only when he’s required to perform a long phone conversation with his mother. But this slightly out-of-tune solo is but a few moments of a show that, for the majority of its 100-minute running time, hums with the music of a world-class ensemble.
At Round House Theatre to May 6. 4545 East West Highway, Bethesda. $45–$65. (240) 644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.
CORRECTION: This review initially stated that Danny Glover played Sam in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of “Master Harold” … and the Boys. That was incorrect—Zakes Mokae played Sam and Glover played Willie. We regret the error.