Master Harold and the Boys

by Becky Sarwate

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday January 24, 2010

From left: Alfred H. Wilson (Sam), Daniel Bryant (Willie) and Nate Burger (Hally) in Master Harold and the Boys through March 21 at the TimeLine Theatre
From left: Alfred H. Wilson (Sam), Daniel Bryant (Willie) and Nate Burger (Hally) in Master Harold and the Boys through March 21 at the TimeLine Theatre  

Part of the beauty of the Chicago theater scene is its ability to split itself into widely diverse and sustainable niches, its aptitude for contorting itself to offer, quite literally, something for everyone. For 13 seasons, TimeLine Theatre Company has undertaken a mission to "present stories inspired by history that connect with today's social and political issues." The third offering of its current slate, 'Master Harold'...And the Boys, directed by Jonathan Wilson, takes a step back in time to South Africa in 1950, an era when the nation was culturally rent by the laws and practices of apartheid. For those who enjoy a history lesson as well as some deep philosophical query with their entertainment, TimeLine Theatre constructions are a routinely satisfying experience.

This capable production purposefully, and uncomfortably, inserts the audience into an emotionally charged trifecta of social influences: the broken family, entrenched poverty tied to racial inequality, and standard adolescent turmoil. These tensions are played out in a single afternoon as we observe the uneven interactions between Hally (Nate Burger), a white teenager torn apart by appearances, convention and his own youthful idealism, and Willie (Daniel Bryant) and Sam (Alfred H. Wilson), two loyal black workers that Hally has known all his life.

More than employees, and beyond paid caregivers, Willie and Sam have become a surrogate uncle and father, respectively, to the school aged Hally over the course of his young life. Beset with a handicapped, alcoholic, unemployed father and a loyal drudge of a mother, the lonely young man has experienced a dearth of satisfying role models to emulate. Though repeatedly told by his never seen father that black men are inferior, a group to be dominated and demeaned, Hally struggles with the lessons of his unsatisfying white parentage, juxtaposed with loving and safe relationships that society has deemed unseemly.

It is the tragic flaw of Hally that in order to please the pseudo father he disrespects, he feels he must annihilate the solid foundations he has built with his "true" African family. It is to the immense credit of Nate Burger, a promising, relative newcomer to the Chicago stage, that Hally's adolescent manic depressive unraveling comes off as neither whiny nor petulant. For every minute of the 100-minute, dialogue heavy production, Burger's words, mannerisms and emotions are packed with the realism required to shatter the audience's heart in tandem with Hally's.

Deserving of no less credit for sustaining the rise and fall of the dramatic arc are Bryant and Wilson. This well cast pair play beautifully off each other, whether comedically, as Willie and Sam prepare for an upcoming ballroom dance competition, or dramatically, as the men reel from the sudden insults and injuries inflicted by their young friend. Wilson, in particular, seems lit by an internal fire, driven by a personal meaning that spills over into his portrayal of Sam. At the end of the evening's performance as Sam gazes wistfully after the departed Hally, the bitter tears in Wilson's eyes seem informed by more than the moment. It is the audience's ability to tap into Wilson's naked vulnerability that lends Athol Fugard's acclaimed play an additional boost of power.

Director Jonathan Wilson manages to coach painfully complex and restrained performances from the three principles with such even tempo that the dialogue takes on the rhythm of a practiced Viennese waltz. It will be interesting to discover if and how those dynamics will change when the director takes over the role of Sam on March 3rd.

Scenic Designer Timothy Mann, in collaboration with Lighting Designer Heather Gilbert and Sound Designer Christopher Kriz, do a splendid job of evoking the unique suffocation of heat and torrential rain on a South African afternoon. The small details and minimalist set design construct a clean and neat cafe locale that stands in stark contrast to the emotional mess heaved about for the production's one hour and 40 minute running time. The oxygen choked atmosphere mimics the stinging rhetorical environment in which Hally, Willie and Sam play out their own mini-revolution.

The indelible impression left by TimeLine Theatre Company's 'Master Harold"...And the Boys is one that we come away with so often in a post-Obama "Yes We Can" 21st Century America - that sense of having come so far in some ways, but of having fallen so profoundly short in humanity's work at the end of the afternoon.

Due to strong language, partial nudity and mild violence, 'Master Harold'...And the Boys might be considered inappropriate for younger children. However, that said, the play is an important history lesson, past and present, that will provide intellectual food for thought long after the curtain drops.

Master Harold and the Boys runs through March 21, 2010 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave. Chicago.

Performance schedule:: Wednesday - Thursday at 7:30pm; Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 4pm and 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. Info phone: 773-281-8463, ext. 24. For more information visit the TimeLine Theatre Web site.

Becky Sarwate is the President of the Illinois Woman's Press Association, founded in 1885. She's also a part-time freelance writer, award-winning columnist and blogger who lives in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago with her partner Bob and their pet menagerie . Keep up with Becky at