Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Perhaps the best news about this production is not simply how brightly the play itself shines, still sparkling 30+ years after its premiere, but how Aurora Theatre Company has staged this masterpiece with equivalent brilliance. From the perfectly wrought set that establishes the scene in St. George's Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth to the perfectly paced direction of Timothy Near, this is about as close to a perfect night of theater as one could reasonably expect.
The action all takes place within the Tea Room, on a rain-soaked day in 1950. Sam (L. Peter Callender) and Willie (Adrian Roberts), two black servants, are tidying the room. Sam is tending the counter, flipping through a stack of comic books, while Willie scrubs the floor and rehearses for his upcoming entry in a regional dance competition. Sam coaches Willie, telling him he must look happy and relaxed, that the objective of ballroom dancing is to make something that is difficult look effortless. Easier said than done. Into this scene walks Hally (Andrew Humann), the teenage son of Sam and Willie's employers. A precocious schoolboy with a sharp wit and quick tongue, Hally exudes the status and privilege of a white person in apartheid era South Africa. Despite the fact he's still too young to need to shave every day, Hally treats the two grown black men with a sense of entitlement, despite his warm feelings for Sam and Willie who have been in his family's employ since before he was born.
As the three interact, and question and even tease each other, the literal storm outside is matched by a gathering figurative storm at Hally's home. His father, crippled in World War II, is threatening to leave the hospital where he is receiving care in order to return home where he will have greater access to the liquor he craves. Hally, who is clearly stepping up to the role of man of the house, pleads on the phone with his mother to put her foot down and insist her husband stay in hospital, if for no other reason than to preserve the peace and quiet their home has enjoyed in the father's absence.
Hally, unfortunately, will prove to have learned far too much from his father and not nearly enough from Sam, who has been the most consistent paternal presence in his life.
One of the Bay Area's most skilled actors, L. Peter Callender is absolutely magnificent as Sam. He manages to somehow hold within him both the pain of life as a black man in South Africa and the hopeful optimism that keeps him going in the constant struggle against the social and political forces arrayed against his race. Every fiber of Callender's being seems to inhabit this role. We never see an actor playing a character, only a proud and powerful human being making his way along a narrow and perilous path. It is a performance that is not to be missed.
Though his role is smaller, Adrian Roberts is no less skilled an actor. Willie is more subservient, but Roberts nonetheless brings a sincere humanity to his role. With a small upturn of his lips and a faraway look in the pool of his dark eyes, we see his bemusement at the absurdities of life (and dancing). But when his mood darkens and those eyes turn cold and accusing, the effect is chilling.
Andrew Humann is every bit the equal of his two partners. His Hally is both easy to like and easy to despise, thanks in part to Fugard's brilliant characterization (based on his own younger self), but also in part thanks to Humann's smooth segues from silly schoolboy to privileged master. He lays on the quirkiness a bit heavily at first, but this only serves to make his transformation into an entitled lout all the more impactful.
South Africa is the source of most of the world's diamonds, including this spectacularly brilliant literary gem. And while the Hope Diamond hosts millions of visitors, only a few thousand will have a chance to see this shimmering production. Make sure you are one of them.
"Master Harold" ... and the boys. runs through July 17, 2016, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. Shows are Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $32-$50. Tickets and additional information are available at www.auroratheatre.org or by calling 510-843-4822.