A masterful ‘Harold,’ a hopey-changey tickler

Personal meets political in a Fugard classic and a crankily entertaining American family dramedy

Benedict, Wedderburn, Bermea: a Fugard trifecta. Photo: Jamie Bosworth

Theater is storytelling, action, language, stuff coming at you full force, in real time, right in front of your face. Yet often it’s at its very best in its quietest moments: those fleeting, sometimes almost imperceptible chasms in the action when the curtains part on a character’s soul and the audience stares deep into a fundamental realization or a universe of unsuspected possibilities.

Hopey Changey’s Porter, Burkhartsmeier. Photo: Owen Carey

Last weekend on Portland stages, at least a couple of those marvelous time-fissures occurred – once, in Profile Theatre’s excellent revival of Athol Fugard’s brilliant 1982 play “Master Harold … and the boys,” when Bobby Bermea’s eyes told the audience that an irretrievable insult had changed the world; once, in Richard Nelson’s smartly argumentative family dramedy “That Hopey Changey Thing” at Third Rail Rep, when a moment of lostness on Bruce Burkhartsmeier’s face revealed that Uncle Benjamin wasn’t just not paying attention: some major cog had  slipped.

As the city’s newest theater season pulls out of the driveway and merges into rush-hour traffic, both productions mark beginnings of sorts. “Master Harold” is the first show in Profile Theatre’s season of plays by Fugard, the eminent South African writer who dared to collaborate with black actors during the depths of apartheid and write about urgent racial and political matters. “Hopey Changey” is the first of a projected quartet of plays by Nelson about the state of contemporary American politics, as filtered through a single extended family in and around New York, and Third Rail Rep has made a commitment to produce all four, one apiece in the next four seasons. “Hopey Changey” is a good play. “Master Harold” is very likely a great one. And Portland theatergoers can celebrate, because both plays are receiving productions worthy of their challenges.

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Just three performers take the stage in “Master Harold … and the boys,” and yet they create an entire world, both macrocosmic and microcosmic. It’s a story of the unlikely and unequal friendship among two black men and a not-quite-grown white boy, and also about the intended and unintended consequences of apartheid, of racial inequity and prejudices, of the muddle that occurs when personal impulses, political dictates, and ingrained cultural beliefs overlap and clatter against each other. As in a Chekhov play, nothing happens and everything happens: sympathetic characters surprise themselves into reluctant conflict, something foolish and impulsive yet also seemingly fated takes place, and the world turns. The play’s small cataclysm occurs on a stormy Port Elizabeth afternoon in 1950 in a little family-run tea room, where schoolboy Hally arrives as the family servants, Sam and Willie, are gliding across the storefront floor in anticipation of the big ballroom dancing contest, and anticipates the equally stormy political dances to play out across South Africa in the lives and careers of Steve Biko, Bishop Tutu, Presidents De Klerk and Mandela, and millions of ordinary citizens, black and white.

“Master Harold” is also, in a fictional way, the story of Fugard himself – not exactly autobiographical, but close enough to it. In that, too, it marks a beginning: the crisis that at least metaphorically shaped the writer’s passage to adulthood and the social commitment with which we know, from hindsight, that he emerged. So as shattering as “Master Harold” might seem onstage, we know it also will have something very like a happy, if hard-won, ending. As easy as Fugard claims the story was to craft, its subject must have been painful to approach, because it digs deep and doesn’t allow young Hally, Fugard’s stand-in, a lot of excuses. I’ve seen performances of this play where Hally comes across as an amiable, likable kid who makes a huge mistake because he’s trapped inside the presumption of superiority that apartheid bred among the country’s white citizens. So far, so good. But in this production, director Jane Unger and actor Sam Benedict face up to some uglier truths about Hally, who – such is the insidiousness of a racially based system of cultural stratification – is not just victim but also perpetrator. Benedict’s version of the young master of the household is that he’s a mess: quick and curious and even daring, but also a didact, an intellectual snob, impulsive, resentful, an unconscious bully, a little boy pretending to be a man, and much of his impetuous, grating brashness created as a defense mechanism against a dreary home life dominated by a racist drunk of a dad and an overly compliant mom. He’s a plain irritating kid, awkward and unvarnished, but with possibilities, and that sense of a braver personality lurking behind the brusque and easy one, a potentially better Hally once he’s freed of the constrictions of his home, parallels the possibilities of an entire nation if only it can find a way out from under the prejudices and handicaps of its present and past. Benedict makes Hally such an exasperating prig that you want to grind your teeth – and that’s exactly the sort of tension the drama needs.

Intriguingly, the two black characters seem to have more hope than Hally does, although their hope is on a measured scale, and, in Willie’s case, it’s tarnished by a brutal streak that echoes the brutality of his own social position. Garfield Wedderburn does a lovely job of portraying a character who is simultaneously sweet and funny – he can almost taste that elusive dancing trophy – and hobbled by emotions he can’t control: His partner has disappeared just two weeks before the contest because when he gets frustrated with her work on the dance floor, he beats her.

Weddeburn and Bermea: the dance of hope. Photo: Jamie Bosworth

It’s Sam, though, who is Hally’s proponent and antagonist, and guide, and in almost every way his better. And Bermea gives a rich and wonderfully complex performance, if the downward-spiraling and fatefully unobservant young Hally would only notice it, as this toweringly moral and graceful character. Sam is the father that Hally’s biological father can never be: a steady, wise, patient, humorous, and almost preternaturally understanding figure, a man who offers Hally the most daring sort of love: the love of an underling who must cross cultural and even legal barriers to be an authority figure to his own “master.” Bermea does a magnificent job of showing how Sam, with the greatest of difficulty, keeps his own dignity in check in order to guide this fierce and injured child to a better life that he, Sam, can never know. As Bermea portrays him, Sam is a man of deep and abiding humor, who nevertheless has a line that cannot be crossed. When it is, not just foolish Hally, but also Sam himself, faces what may be the most crucial turning point in his life.

I was lucky enough in 1985 to see Fugard co-starring on Broadway with Zakes Mokae in his own play “Blood Knot,” a murkier drama than “Master Harold,” and his performance was a revelation: pixieish, painfully funny, frazzled and careworn, Beckett-like in its music-hall comedy and reminiscent physically of a slyly fumbling and floppy Buster Keaton. It cut across the grain of the play’s serious themes and brought a sense of antic joy to a drama headed in a far more drastic direction. Sam is a different character in a different play, and Bermea’s performance isn’t like Fugard’s in its particulars. But it is in its effect: it adds warmth and humor and a kind of theatrical joy to the play’s serious goings-on. In Profile’s little home space in the Theater! Theatre! building, where performers and audience can practically touch each other, he uses those silent but eloquent eyes to maximum effect. And he reminds us that however serious a play may be, the theater is also entertainment.

Some people criticize “Master Harold” for being too schematic, and certainly it’s neatly balanced with its echoes and thematic parallels. Contemporary drama tends to be messier, less constricted by the niceties of form. But that’s only fashion. Like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, playwrights who also had big things on their minds, Fugard is foursquare and unironic. Thirty years after its debut “Harold” still seems emotionally urgent and politically pertinent to the current state of world affairs. After Sunday’s matinee performance I ran into Unger, Profile’s recently retired founder and the director of this show, and told her I’d forgotten what a good play “Master Harold” is. “I wish we’d had another month to rehearse it,” she replied. “Every day we discover new layers to explore.” Classics have a way of being like that. But this production has layers and layers and layers already waiting to explore, and I strongly suggest you do it – maybe in tandem with “Seven Guitars,” by August Wilson, the great American theatrical explorer of racial matters, which opens Friday at Artists Rep. Good stuff goin’ on.

A typographical postscript: I remember the play’s title being printed in its early years as “Master Harold … and the boys,” with the “M” and “H” in “Master Harold” capitalized and the “b” in “boys” left lower-case, and that’s the way I’ve used it here, although it isn’t the way that Profile prints it. I always liked what seemed to me the subtle symbolism of the quirky spelling: the boy being capitalized, because he’s white; the men kept in their lower-case place, because they’re black. It’s a topsy-turvy reasoning, but one that seemed to perfectly encapsulate the situation in South Africa at the time.

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The siblings: Maddux, Lingafelter, Porter, O’Connell. Photo: Owen Carey

“That Hopey Changey Thing,” Nelson’s bouncy little political baby, takes its title from Sarah Palin’s jibe a year or so after Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008. “How’s that hopey changey stuff workin’ for ya?” the woman who had run for vice president in that election asked, implishly, as the nation sank deeper into an economic and military funk that had begun under the watch of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

So here we are creeping agonizingly toward another presidential election, this one to determine whether Obama will get the chance to keep that hopey changey thing chugging along for another four years, and you’d expect Nelson’s play to be topical and satirical – Jon Stewart-ish, maybe, or some ghastly theatrical recombination of Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann.

Instead – and even though it takes place on the midterm election evening of November 2, 2010 – the play isn’t about politics in a partisan sense so much as it’s about the way we think about how we think about partisan politics. In other words: do we think at all, or do we simply react? Do we choose up sides and demonize the other guys? And what awful truths do we overlook about the character and tactics of our own side in pursuit of the necessary victory that will keep the demons on the other side from gaining power?

There’s a danger in tossing all of the political players into the same frying pan and basting them with the same barbecue sauce. In fact, all politicians aren’t alike, and the two major parties have significant differences, although the mutual capitulation to the allure and demands of Big Money, as Nelson takes pains to point out, isn’t one of them. Some ideas are better than other ideas. Some players are smarter or more honest than others. In his admirable zeal to play devil’s advocate to the progressive Democrats who presumably constitute his own tribe, Nelson flirts with the “they’re all the same so it doesn’t make any difference who you vote for” line. He doesn’t cross over, quite. His political point, I think, is that we go about this whole thing poorly, dividing our house against itself, asking the wrong questions, covering up uneasy truths. And what might we do to mend our wayward ways? An excellent, and unanswered, question.

Yet even bringing up the question in the midst of our quadrennial electoral madness is a worthy act. And although I don’t know how these four plays are ultimately going to work themselves out, I suspect that, although Nelson is genuinely concerned about how we go about our public lives, he’s ultimately more concerned about what happens in the messily intertwined private lives of the six members of the extended Apple clan of New York City and the Hudson River Valley village of Rhinebeck (which also happens to be where Nelson lives). Because, really, these six and the varied purposeful and accidental ways they bump into one another are vastly more intriguing and entertaining than the political ideas they toss around. Nelson’s a smart and stylish writer who’s always had a sense of the effects on private life of the larger world: plays like “The Return of Pinocchio” and “Some Americans Abroad” are both farcical and satirical, and packed with ideas about the workings and misworkings of the broader culture. But as in “Some Americans,” it’s the people who give “Hopey Changey” its truest theatrical punch. And Third Rail’s talented cast, under Slayden Scott Yarbrough’s crisp and true direction, makes sure we feel the punch not just on the heads but also on our funny bones.

Burkhartsmeier’s frail and sometimes vacant Uncle Benjamin is only the beginning. Benjamin’s the family celebrity, a legendary stage actor who’s retired back to the family home in Rhinebeck. He has secrets, now unfortunately locked away since an accident that caused amnesia, wiping out large sections of his memory. Burkhartsmeier’s performance is a model of emotional economy: at first we think Uncle Benjamin’s just relaxing in his own head. Then it occurs that he’s incapacitated, probably by Alzheimer’s. Then we learn it’s not that, after all: it’s amnesia, essentially an injury to the brain, and at times he’s capable of extended and sophisticated rational argument. He just has … holes. Some of this production’s most affecting scenes are between Benjamin and the much younger actor Tim (in a sweet and understatedly comic performance by Isaac Lamb), on the nature of acting and the desirability of forgetfulness, of simply entering the moment when you’re onstage. Of course, there’s inevitable trouble when the moment doesn’t happen to include a knowledge of the lines.

Benjamin and Tim (who is sister Jane’s new boyfriend) are the outsiders, the reality checks, in a way, for the four siblings, and these four constitute a classic, if somewhat left of center, American theatrical clan. All four are given smart and funny and sometimes emotionally touching performances, the kinds of turns that actors love to tackle and audiences love to see. There’s Barbara (Jacklyn Maddux), the eldest sister, who’s stuck with taking care of everything. And  Marian (a waspishly funny Maureen Porter), the outspoken and outrageous and surprisingly straight-and-narrow one. And Jane (Rebecca Lingafelter), who’s dragged poor Tim into the middle of this family catfight and is beginning to have second thoughts about her liberal orthodoxy. And especially Richard (Michael O’Connell), the golden-boy little brother, the political insider who worked for Spitzer and Cuomo, who’s had a bellyful of the compromises and moral rot of the game, and has just resigned to take a high-profile position as a lawyer in a prominent – and Republican – New York law firm. O’Connell has the chore of carrying most of the play’s political argument and manages it well without sounding like a mouthpiece. He carries it off with an oddly charming, if despairing, humor, and leaves us with the feeling that wherever Richard’s political crisis might lead him (and it’s sounding as if he might just pull a David Mamet and bounce all the way from left to right) he’s also heading toward a calmer and healthier personal place.

“That Hopey Changey Thing” clocks in at a tick-tock 90 minutes, and although it makes a satisfying self-contained play it also feels very much like the first act of the four-act play that this quartet eventually will be. We’ve met the characters. We know where they’re coming from. We’ve grown to like them. We’ve been presented with a few mysteries. Will Benjamin’s memory come back? What shenanigans was Mom up to, way back when, and why did Dad just disappear? Will Tim and Jane make a go of it? Will Richard veer farther right or return to the fold? What’s up with Marian’s workaholic hubby? And will America go to hell in a flag-lined handbasket? Tune in a year from now for the big family reunion – if you haven’t hightailed it to Canada to escape the fallout from November. Who knows? You might run into an Apple or two up there.

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