On opening night of Bay Theatre's 11th season, board of trustees president Barbara Dwyer Brown promised, "Artistic director Janet Luby will be fearless in her program choices." Luby has started each of the past three seasons with a compassionate examination of complex human issues.
This season, Luby continues that newly established tradition as Bay opens with "Master Harold ... and the Boys" by South African playwright Athol Fugard, a partly autobiographical 1982 work examining relationships in a world of apartheid.
In 2010, Luby chose Terrence McNally's "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," a penetrating look at flawed family relationships, to open her first season as Bay's artistic director. The 10th season opened with Margaret Edson's "Wit," in which the protagonist copes with a terminal illness. Each season, the audience confronts a daunting subject on the human condition. Bay Theatre consistently achieves its goal of offering "thought-provoking, exciting productions which leave our audiences thinking and possibly even transformed by their experience."
First produced in 1982 at the Yale Repertory Theater, "Master Harold ... and the Boys" is set in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950, the year that apartheid became the nation's official racial segregation policy. Hally, as Fugard was called as a boy, is a white teenager in his family's restaurant, the St. George's Tea Room, where two black men, Sam and Willie, are longtime employees. Hally's hospitalized, alcoholic, abusive father is about to be released to his industrious mother's care in the family home.
"Sam was the most significant — the only — friend of my boyhood years," Fugard says in Bay director Richard Pilcher's program notes. "The play deals with one specific moment which I'm trying to exorcise out of my soul. I wrote the play on one level in an attempt to understand how and why I am the man that I am."
Hally has an easy relationship with Sam and Willie, discussing his school assignments with them in search of a suitable essay subject and settling on a coming championship ballroom dancing contest that Willie has entered.
Hally's enthusiasm for the project disappears after a series of phone calls from his mother in which he learns that his father will be released from the hospital after an extended stay. As Hally expresses his anger, Sam counsels him to welcome his father home, so infuriating Hally that he unleashes a tirade against his friend.
Sean McComas, as Hally, lives up to the promise he showed in his Bay debut as Ellard in "The Foreigner," transitioning from a moody teenager who has a warm relationship with Sam, his surrogate father. Dreading the prospect of his father's return home, Hally becomes cruelly racist toward Sam.
Hurling his insults in rapid Afrikaner dialect, McComas' Hally subtly communicates reluctance that underlies his offending insistence that Sam address him as "Master." In this scene, McComas conveys the generational inheritance of abuse that defines apartheid.
Michael Anthony Williams delivers a towering portrayal of Sam that may mark a new high in award-worthy Bay Theatre performances. Williams' resigned, dignified Sam suggests that oppression can bring wisdom — a quality that he conveys with natural simplicity. In a climactic scene symbolizing pride, freedom and happiness, Sam recalls teaching the young boy how to make a kite and gives him confidence in flying it. Williams' lilting accent adds a charming dimension, as does his grace in teaching ballroom dance skills to Willie.
Baakari Wilder makes a memorable Bay Theatre debut as Willie, a good-natured comic figure carrying out his menial waiter duties while intent on winning the ballroom dance contest. In conversation with Sam, Willie's abuse of his dance partner is revealed, again illustrating apartheid's pervasive effects. Wilder captures Willie's multifaceted nature in later scenes filled with his underlying distress at Hally's disrespect of Sam.
Director Pilcher draws uniformly excellent performances from his actor trio and balances needed humor with tragedy to heightened effects.
Cast and director benefit from the set design skills of Ken Sheats, who creates a realistic, comfortably shabby restaurant enhanced by the lighting design of Preston Strawn. Dialect coach Nancy Krebs rates kudos for her coaching the cast in Afrikaner dialect.
Note: In addition to producing "Master Harold ... and the Boys," Luby signed Bay Theatre on to co-sponsor with Dignity Players a performance of "8" on Oct. 8 at Anne Arundel Community College's Kauffman Theatre. She joined a cast of 17 prominent local actors in Dustin Lance Black's chronicle of the federal trial on marriage equality. The dramatization of this timely subject was well received by an appreciative audience.
Performances of "Master Harold and the Boys" continue weekends at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 11. To order individual tickets or season subscriptions, go to baytheatre.org or call the box office at 877-503-9463.