In her final season as artistic director of the Shaw Festival, Jackie Maxwell was determined to produce a play by the South African writer Athol Fugard.
After watching Philip Akin’s clean and crushing production of Fugard’s “ ‘Master Harold’ ... And the Boys,” running through Sept. 10 in the Court House Theatre, it’s easy to see why.
Fugard’s 1982 play, set in 1950 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, compresses the hypocrisies of apartheid into the space of a small café and the words of three tight-knit characters.
Like some of the most effective pieces of art about white indifference to black lives, it charms and beguiles audiences before chilling them to the bone.
In that café, we meet two black employees, Willie and Sam (Allan Louis and André Sills), as they prepare the shop for customers who never arrive. As they clean the floors and polish the silverware, the pair practices moves for a coming ballroom dancing competition that serves as the light at the end of this sometimes grim tunnel of a play.
Outside, it’s raining cats and dogs, as young Hally (James Daly) announces when he waltzes in the door in his school uniform, as if from Hogwarts. What we’re treated to next is one of the most naturalistic bits of exposition I’ve seen, pulled off with intoxicating grace by this cast.
Akin, aided by Peter Hartwell’s cozy set and unostentatious period costumes as well as Kevin Lamotte’s ethereal lighting, manages to keep a play set in a tiny café from feeling claustrophobic. To know that it’s raining outside is enough to let our imaginations fill in the world beyond the café’s doors – one saturated with injustice but punctuated by stolen moments of pleasure and flickers of hope.
We learn about Hally’s lifelong friendship with Willie and especially Sam, a surrogate father who shepherded him into young adulthood. In return, Hally fed Sam’s own curiosity about the world, sharing books and engaging in intellectual sparring matches both sides clearly relish.
But despite the light tone Willie and Sam try to sustain, Hally is in the midst of an existential crisis.
His alcoholic father is coming home from the hospital, and he can’t stomach the thought of caring for him as he prepares to shower abuse on him and his mother.
We watch with growing dread, through so many touching exchanges between the boy and his longtime friends, knowing that the ugliness of the South African apartheid state will eventually show itself in that small room.
So fully have these actors inhabited their roles that when it did, I felt something past heartbreak and closer to physical discomfort. I had to remind myself I was watching a play.
As Sam, Sills is a walking conflict, reveling in his friendship with Hally one moment and barely suppressing his rage at the unfairness of his position the next. Against Sills’ captivating multiplicity, Daly renders the privileged schoolboy with a believable sense of impetuousness and, finally, a withering cruelty. Louis, as the troubled sidekick Willie, also shines.
The lesson to be gleaned from Fugard’s work is simple: It is impossible to recognize the dignity or creativity of a human being while perpetuating a system that holds him back because of his race.
He suggests that if you are guilty of the latter, out of effort or ignorance, your affection for the maid who raised you, or your praise for the genius of Beyoncé or John Coltrane, is little more than theater.
As Fugard suggests, you cannot live inside art – whether that’s a ballroom dancing competition or “Giant Steps.” Art is something to aspire to, a fantasy space where the divisions and conflicts of the real world don’t exist.
But they do exist, in 1950 as today. And we can be thankful they’ve been laid bare with such clarity on a Shaw Festival stage.
“ ‘Master Harold’... And the Boys”
4 stars (out of four)
Drama presented by the Shaw Festival through Sept. 10 in the Court House Theatre, 26 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tickets are $35 to $117. Call 800-511-SHAW or visit shawfest.com for more info.