Reviewing the Broadway premiere of “Master Harold” … and the Boys in 1982, Frank Rich predicted Athol Fugard’s short, shattering drama “may even outlast the society that spawned it.” And so it has. This powerful, poetic play, based on some of the playwright’s most painful childhood memories, is set in apartheid-era South Africa. But seeing it years after the fall of that overtly racist system, it’s clear he achieved something more than exposing the horrors of his homeland, or even exorcising his own personal demons. From this distance, Master Harold plays like a 20th-century version of Hamlet, in which a privileged young man with father issues comes face to face with the moral rot that is both all around him and inside him. Like the Danish prince, he responds first by intellectualizing, then by lashing out violently.
The fact that powerless people sometimes vent their rage on those of even lower status isn’t exactly news, but Fugard chronicles this sad aspect of the human condition with telling specificity and deep compassion. Hally (Daniel Stewart) is spending a rainy afternoon in the rundown Tea Room owned by his mother. He has homework to do, but he’d rather pal around with the two black employees, Sam (Anthony J. Haney) and Willie (Chris Erric Maddox), his friends and companions since early childhood. Their interaction is playful, even loving, until some disturbing telephone calls from Hally’s mother change the young man’s mood. He cannot control his horrible home life, but—and you can almost see the superb Stewart telling himself this—he can access his emerging manliness by asserting his authority here and now.
In the Rubicon Theatre Company’s strong, sensitive production the moment Hally physically releases his fury is absolutely devastating. Director Brian McDonald played Hally in an East Coast production 20 years ago, and he clearly has a deep understanding of the play. It’s striking how Sam always retains his dignity, whether he’s stumbling over words while reading aloud, or recounting a humiliating incident from years earlier. As powerfully portrayed by Haney, this is a man who has refused to let society define him, and thus doesn’t feel the need to strike out at others. His presence, along with Fugard’s recurring symbols of grace and transcendence (kite flying, ballroom dancing), gives this piercingly honest play an underlying sense of hope.