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Sins of the father

Visiting the son in 'Master Harold'
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  March 10, 2010

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DISCOVERING HIS SWITCH Flipping from joy to rage and back.

On a rainy afternoon, Hally, short for Harold, (Michael Littig) comes home from school as usual to his wealthy parents' tea room in apartheid-era South Africa. It is being cleaned, as usual, by the middle-aged black servants, Sam (Charlie Hudson III) and Willie (Daryl C. Brown), who have been looking after him all his life. But after some familiar banter (Hally and Sam memorably debate history's "men of magnitude" — Hally names Darwin, Sam names Jesus, and they finally agree on Alexander Fleming) a wrench is thrown into this ordinary day: Hally learns that the crippled, alcoholic father he despises will be released from a long hospitalization, and will ravage Hally's recent peace at home.

The upheaval that follows is the coming-of-age trauma of Athol Fugard's "Master Harold" and the boys, in which a black man helps a white boy confront his shame, his family demons, and the conscious and unconscious bigotry that he has inherited. Fugard's powerful and elegant script receives a resonant all-Equity production by Portland Stage Company, under the fine direction of Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. Here in the tea room (a gorgeously rendered, high-ceilinged set by Adam Koch, with narrow front windows, simple tables and tile, and, painted on one wall, a huge, tight-grinned man with a glass of beer) between Willie's waltz practice and Hally's homework, a devastating maturation takes place in a mere hour and a half of real time.

In this time and place, everyday culture is steeped in casual violence, and early in the play we see how cavalierly all three characters accept and even laugh about it: Willie beats the woman he dances with, Hally is beaten by his teacher, and Sam talks of how prisoners are beaten in the prisons. What's horrifying about their talk is not just the abuse itself, but its banality in their lives, and our recognition of how easily, how thoughtlessly it is perpetuated.

Likewise is it almost unbearably vertiginous to watch the wavering of Littig's Hally between identities, between a sensitive, troubled boy and an autocratic bigot of a man. The latter is a defensive reaction to the turmoil of the former, and both are inflicted by the role models of his white world. But though he might not know it, Hally has other role models in these spirited black men, particularly the generous, wise, quick-grinning Sam. Now on the cusp of manhood, however, Hally veers from horsing childishly around with them to calling them "boys" and ordering them back to work. And as his anxiety grows about his father's return, and as Sam and Willie wordlessly witness more and more of the boy's weakness, Hally's unconscious racism becomes deliberate and cruel, exactly after the style of his despised father.

Littig is superb, nerve-wracking, as he navigates Hally's liminal psychic place. He is taut, twitchy, wound up with energy and ready at any moment to spring. In his sudden moments of communion with Sam and Willy, he bounds, bounces, and pumps fists in the air, but then swerves just as quickly into dangerous stillness or rage. His Hally is a revealing and frightening illustration of how fear and shame can callous into hate.

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