Athol Fugard plays are far from standard summer-theater fare, but this is the second to crop up this season in New England. The first was the U.S. premiere of Fugard’s atypical 1975 work “Dimetos” at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. Now comes one of Fugard’s best-known works at the Westport Country Playhouse. The choice of this challenging play, first seen at Yale Repertory 20 years ago prior to Broadway, and the quality of the production do credit to the company.
Writing the play was an act of exorcism for Fugard. The writer as a teen can be seen in Harold, aka Hally (Joshua Park), a 17-year-old white South African struggling with his demons during the rite of passage to maturity at the center of the play, set in 1950. It’s a demanding role for a young actor, not least because Fugard didn’t spare himself when creating Hally, who is often callow, priggish and seemingly insensitive. Deeply ashamed of his drunken, crippled father and ashamed of himself for being ashamed, young Hally eventually lashes out at Sam and Willie, two black men who work in the Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, run by Hally’s mother. In the play’s jolting climax, Hally spits at Sam, who has been a surrogate father to him during his troubled childhood.
All three actors in this WCP production are impressive, though on opening night the close relationship between Hally and Sam wasn’t made clear enough, thereby giving the play’s haunting ending less power. And there were times when we were watching actors at work rather than actors completely merged into their roles. Nevertheless, Park reveals much of the essential Hally, looking about the right age and having the right clean-cut, ’50s air about him.
When Sam and Willie excuse Hally’s bad behavior by saying that although he’s in long pants, he’s still a little boy, it’s believable. True, Park’s performance is somewhat studied and with too much finger-pointing, but he meets its demands head-on and drives the production steadily right up until Sam takes over toward the end.
Leon Addison Brown has previously appeared as Sam at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, and he is excellent, though he also needs to establish his long nurturing relationship with Hally more firmly. As Willie, who is less sophisticated than Sam, Ray Anthony Brown is superb, playing simplicity without ever condescending to his character.
Walter Dallas, the artistic director of Philadelphia’s Freedom Theater, has directed with skill and feeling in Felix E. Cochren’s aptly drab tea-room setting, rain dribbling down the outside of its windows.
Fugard’s script does have its problems. It’s mostly a matter of exposition and the retelling of things that have happened in the past, notably Sam making a kite for a downcast little Hally urgently in need of support. There are also preachy or contrived passages, but the play is powerfully moving, and its basic elements haven’t been compromised by the downfall of apartheid in South Africa (it is not, after all, really about racial bigotry). It may not have quite the gut-wrenching kick its scalpel-sharp last 15 minutes evinced back in 1982, but it’s still a play of great emotional and intellectual fervor.