Athol Fugard's slowly simmering 1982 drama "Master Harold and the boys" encapsulates the tragic complexities of apartheid-era South Africa in one dismal rainy afternoon. The fine new production of the classic at the Sacramento Theatre Company's Pollock Stage benefits from a strong trio ensemble and careful, sensitive staging from director Buddy Butler.
Fugard's play is set in St. George's Park Tea Room, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950 and takes place in the real time of one afternoon there.
Michael J. Asberry's Sam and Rob Anthony Gray's Willie are the adult African waiters and custodians of the tea room, and Will Block's 17-year-old Hally (called "Master Harold" by Sam and Willy) is the son of the owner. Willie defers to Sam, who is not only older, but more sophisticated and worldly in ways Willie wants to emulate. Sam has introduced Willie to ballroom dancing and serves as the younger man's instructor in dancing and in life. Asberry's compassionate Sam has a learned, gentle patience and a subtle sense of humor as he guides Willie through the dance-step nuances. Gray's Willie has a quick-trigger temper, and though easily frustrated he seeks approval from Sam. The two men have the easy bond and familiarity of longtime co-workers who also have shared much of their personal lives with each other over the years.
Block's Hally comes into the cafe after school as he always does to have a meal before going home. He has a casual familiarity with the two men, who have worked for his family for many years. As they share stories, we understand Hally has known the two men most of his life, but we also see there is also a familial bond Hally doesn't truly recognize. Block gives a gripping performance as the complex, self-satisfied young adult who has come unaware to a turning point in his life.
The story hinges on an unseen character, Hally's abusive, alcoholic amputee father who has been in the hospital but will return home this day. It's a homecoming Hally dreads, and he eventually turns his anger and frustration on Sam, the man who has truly parented him so many years.
In his simple but profound narrative, playwright Fugard created an allegory for the South Africa of the time. The whites are in uneasy control but unaware or resentful of their emotional dependence on the black Africans whom they've made subservient but with whom they must coexist. Fugard's greatness here lies in making these specific relationships reflect universal human oppression and compassion.
Director Buddy Butler has a sure hand on the taut drama, which simmers flawlessly until near the end, when it seems the emotion is overplayed before the moving production pulls itself together for its somber finish.
'Master Harold ... and the boys'
Four stars (out of 4)
What: Sacramento Theatre Company presents Athol Fugard's classic South African allegory, directed by Buddy Butler.
Where: The STC Pollock Stage, 1419 H St., Sacramento
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and 12:30 p.m. Wednesdays, through May 5.
For information: Call (916) 443-6722 or go to www.sactheatre.org
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Note: Strong language and adult themes
Call The Bee's Call The Bee's Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.