MASTER HAROLD …AND THE BOYS, the closing show of Falcon Theatre’s season, is one of those pieces that looks simple to execute. There’s not much in the way of extraneous tech; no lighting cues, minimal sound effects, and no set changes. In fact, for the entirety of the ninety-minute run time, it’s really just people having conversations about everyday conversation.
Set in 1950 in a South African tea room, Sam and Willie clean the place while talking about an upcoming ball room dance contest. Hally, the white son of their boss, enters after school to do his homework and keep an eye on the two men for his mother. While not much action occurs, there are so many layers of symbolism and theme contained within the text of Athol Fugard’s 1982 script. The nuance is masked by the mundane day to day.
Without professionals like director Ted Weil and his superb cast (Ken Early, Deondra Kamau Means, and Rupert Daniel Spraul), this probably wouldn’t look so easy. With this crew, though, it’s a magnificent – and complex – piece of theatre.
Weil coaches his talented actors through the emotional script with steadiness. Everyone just seems so centered. Early (“Sam”) plays this gentle man with poise and respect. This may be my favorite role Early has ever played. His natural gentility matches nicely with the confident yet oppressed servant’s and there’s a magical synergy between actor and character.
Sam knows what his role has been in helping to raise Hally. Therefore, he views the boy through a somewhat different filter than Willie (Means). The differences in these two personalities shine through, as Means focuses on the simplicity of Willie without mocking the character. And given that Means is one of the most versatile actors in town, his level of restraint in this portrayal is marvelous.
Rupert Spraul, a rising senior in the CCM Acting program, is one of the most gifted young actors in the region. In MASTER HAROLD, though, he stretches to new heights. He has a knack for taking unlikable, petulant characters and exposing their humanity in a relatable way. With Hally, he finds the balance between showing love for his adult friends and the emerging racism that society teaches its youth. It’s exuberance and its anger. And its fear. It’s a heartbreaking, realistic performance.
Kudos to Kate Glasheen for her work with the dialects for each character; even in this detail is a layer of symbolism. Willie speaks simply, and he sounds so. Sam is more sophisticated, but is still a servant. Hally sounds like the white, educated man he is growing up to be. It’s remarkable and subtle.
Though this piece is set in the 1950s and was written in the 1980s, it’s relevant for us today. The timeliness couldn’t be more apparent than in a discussion Hally and Sam have about “greatness of men.” Their examination of what makes a man great highlight the idea that the things South Africans were hopeful for in 1950 are the same things we remain hopeful for today. Universally, we all wish that all the ugliness between races and classes of people would melt away. And if could use the warmth we feel for those we love regardless of their status or the color of their skin, we just might. But we have a long, long way to go.
What a beautiful, important play.
MASTER HAROLD …AND THE BOYS runs through May 20th at Falcon Theatre in Newport, KY. Click here for more information.