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"Master Harold" ... and the boys 

Wednesday, Aug 27 2003
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When it's done right, Athol Fugard's heartbreaking play about race and power in deep-apartheid South Africa can be one of the most affecting dramas of the last 50 years. (Even when it's not done right, the show may reduce you to tears; Fugard is one of those writers who improves the actors who play him.) In any case, Oakland Public Theater and Second Wind Productions have done "Master Harold" right. The story of Hally, a teenage schoolboy whose parents run a South African tearoom, and the two black waiters who are both his friends (in good moments) and his servants (in bad), rises to a painful climax that ends with a devastating speech by Sam, the older waiter and mentor to Hally. Ian Walker delivers this speech with a beautiful, balanced fervor: He makes it hurt. Greg Ayers is trim and polished as Hally, in his loosely knotted tie and ironed slacks; he knows how to be delicate, spoiled, intense, and unconsciously superior, in spite of the fine ideas in his schoolbooks. Norman Gee, as Willie (the younger waiter), trying to learn a quickstep for an upcoming dance contest, manages to be hotheaded as well as stiff on his feet. All three actors strain a bit for their South African accents, and the production is not as magisterial as ACT's in 2001, but it's still a powerful portrait of racial tension and the dream of a world without it.

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