Playwright: Athol Fugard At: TimeLine ( sic ) Theatre, 615 W. Wellington. Tickets: 773-281-8463; www.timelinetheatre.com; $25-$35. Runs through: March 21
The genius of South African playwright Athol Fugard is that his many plays ( 1960-1990s ) each chronicles the horrors of apartheid and the insidious stupidities of racial hatred while retaining stylistic grace, warmth, frequent humor and compassionate humanity. Even his white antagonists are not evil in their moral blindness, but products of their time and culture. His black characters, trapped by their time and denial of their culture, typically are far wiser.
Written in 1982, Master Harold ... and the Boys is deeply autobiographical down to the characters' names. It's set in 1950 when South Africa's apartheid policy still was new, although colonialism and vicious racism long had been part of the nation's legal and social structure. The antagonist, Hally, is a 17-year-old white boyFugard himselfwhose deepest friendships have been with his family's Black employees, Sam and Willie, but especially Sam. The friendship unravels in the course of this 100-minute "real time" play.
The unhappy child of an unhappy marriage, Hally experiences rage, conflict, fear and guilt having little to do with racism. But will they become so? Will Hallywho would be 62 when South Africa's white supremacist government finally fellembrace anti-apartheid reform as Fugard did? Or will he become the bitter, diehard racist his father is, and Fugard's father was? Such is the richness of Fugard's pithy imagery that a kite made of brown paper, a park bench and a ballroom dancing competition become thorough metaphors for South African segregated society ... and for human relations anywhere.
Master director Jonathan Wilson is at the top of his game ( and will take on the role of Sam beginning March 1 ) . His three actors deliver rich, nuanced and deeply thought-out performances, and Wilson's staging exhibits a graceful economy with no wasted gestures or indecisive moves. The setting is a small tea shop owned by Hally's mother. The constant choreography is fascinating as Hally carelessly helps himself to food and drink and spreads his mess around while Sam and Willie quietly and patiently serve him and clean up after him. Ultimately, Master Harold is about Sam's efforts to clean up Hally's emotional mess, and we must believe that Hally comes to understand that or it's a very sad play indeed.
Respected veteran Alfred H. Wilson is majestic as Sam, the older and wiser of the two Black characters and the play's hero. Wilson's upright carriage, unhurried movement and speech, and frequent bemused attitude bespeak a man who has seen it all and survived it all. He cares deeply about his friend Willy, but invests his hopes for a better future in Hally. Smaller and livelier, Daniel Bryant as Willie carries his anger closer to the surface than Sam and makes the perfect foil. Also, as written and as beautifully performed, Willie and Sam are each other's guardians.
As Hally, Nate Burger is a brightly promising new face. Not yet out of college ( Loyola ) , he's nonetheless fully confident in portraying Hally's emotional swings and deep insecurities. If he were physically smaller than Sam or Willie ( or both ) , the power dynamic would be viscerally more forceful, but his taller stature in no way mars Burger's interpretation.
Timothy Mann designed the plain, tile-floored tea shop of yesteryear, which is correct in every period detail except the far-too-modern jukebox.
Note: Two other Athol Fugard plays are in production this season. The Island currently is running at Remy Bumppo Theatre through March 7, and Court Theatre offers Sizwe Banzi is Dead, May 13-June 13. See www.fugardchicago2010.org .