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Bay Theatre’s Master Harold ... and the Boys

The consequences of a moment last a lifetime

Remember the worst thing you ever said, the words you wish you could take back? The worst thing you ever, the act you wish you could undo? Of course we do, which is why Athol Fugard’s award-winning Master Harold … and the boys is so riveting.
    The tragicomedy is an autobiographical dramatization of a moment the playwright was “trying to exorcise from his soul.” Under Richard Pilcher’s direction, this moment of decision has consequences so potent that you can hear Bay Theatre’s audience hold their collective breath.
    South Africa in 1950, just two years after the governmental imposition of apartheid, had more going on than genteel British accents and crisp uniforms. Teachers beat students, husbands beat wives and interracial business relations were cordial — except when they were not.
    Hally, aka Master Harold (Sean McComas) is a teen in conflict whose personal philosophy is “the principle of perpetual disappointment.” He has known Sam (Michael Anthony Williams) and Willie (Baakari Wilder) all his life, both as his mother’s employees at the St. George’s Park Tea Room, his home away from bloody home, and as surrogate family. Yet he cannot reconcile the camaraderie he feels for them with the command he is taught to assert over them. Fugard’s public message is that apartheid poisons relationships. But his immaturity in dealing with it was his private torment.
    Hally, like many an adolescent literary hero, is a fragile boy bristling against an oppressive world. With a crippled, drunken father and a spineless mother, he finds Sam a devoted surrogate dad. Since Hally’s toddlerhood they have played, laughed, cried and studied together with Sam’s sidekick Willie. Yet the boy has always held the upper hand over the man.
    Hally has done such a fine job tutoring lessons from his privileged education that he and Sam spar as intellectual equals. Yet Hally can still order him to fill the salt shakers.
    Buffing the tarnish off such a world is ballroom dance, Sam and Willie’s favorite leisure pursuit. They two-step around the restaurant and Hally’s moods so beautifully the boy sees dance as a metaphor for life representing how things should be rather than how they are with people always bumping into each other. Sam, a confident dance coach and life coach, insists on civility and respect even where it is undeserved, as in the case of Hally’s father. Yet even he has limits that Hally will test.
    Among Bay Theatre Company’s brilliant cast, Williams is the elegant foxtrot you can’t help watching; Wilder is the basic waltz beautifully executed. McComas reels between the extremes of his character. The set feels as real as the Double T Diner and as oppressive as a gray November day with a relentless rain cascading from the striped awning outside the shop windows. Ken Sheats’ technical magic in creating the illusion of rhythmic and sparkling rain draws you in like a hot cuppa on a chilly day.
    This one-act play runs just over one and a half exquisite hours. One incidence of partial nudity makes it unsuitable for young audiences. For everyone else it should be required viewing.

Playing thru Nov. 11. FSa at 8pm, Su 2pm at Bay Theatre, 275 West St., Annapolis. $35-$55 w/discounts; rsvp: 877-503-9463; ­www.baytheatre.org.