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Theater review: 'Master Harold…and the Boys' at Rubicon Theatre

February 24, 2011 |  1:25 pm

Master Harold It’s one thing to intellectually acknowledge injustice in a racist society, but as South African playwright Athol Fugard eloquently cautions in his groundbreaking 1982 drama, “'Master Harold' … and the Boys,” sometimes it takes the recognition of bigotry within oneself to fully comprehend the visceral, dehumanizing fallout for victim and oppressor alike.

Such is the painful coming-of-age lesson that Hally, Fugard’s adolescent white protagonist, learns from his supposed social inferiors. Set in 1950, with the apartheid segregation of South Africa’s black population so firmly entrenched it seemed the natural order of things, the play’s timeless appeal to the distant dream of building a better world resonates full-force in Rubicon Theatre Company’s superbly staged revival.

Director Brian McDonald has flawlessly cast his deeply insightful production (down to the differentiated black and white South African accents). Age-appropriate Daniel Stewart nails Hally’s mercurial mix of intellectual arrogance, sympathetic naiveté and aimlessness as the stress of the imminent return of his crippled, alcoholic father threatens Hally’s rare and touching friendship with black servants Sam (Anthony J. Haney) and Willie (Chris Erric Maddox). Attempting to overcome his sense of powerlessness by invoking his privileged status, Hally shamefully vents his frustrations on the “boys” during a rainy afternoon in his parents’ dingy restaurant (special credit to Thomas S. Giamario’s meticulous set). 

As the devoted Sam, who tried to shape Hally’s difficult road to manhood despite the racial barrier between them, Haney is a heartbreaking embodiment of dignity and wisdom. Sam’s attempt to instruct Maddox’s amusingly clueless, volatile Willie in the fine points of ballroom dancing becomes a metaphor for the increasingly perilous steps in Sam’s complicated dance with Hally, just as his earlier lesson in kite flying was really about helping Hallie’s childhood soul take flight.

The subsequent dismantling of the apartheid regime partially validates the slender hope held out in this classic play’s wounded finale, but the enduring potency in its universal invitation to face the racism within ourselves is a measure of how far we still have to go. 

–- Philip Brandes

“ 'Master Harold' … and the Boys,” Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 6. $39 to $59. (805) 667-2900 or Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Photo: From left, Daniel Stewart, Anthony J. Haney and Chris Erric Maddox. Credit: Jeanne Tanner.