For its inaugural production, Living Light Theatre performs Athol Fugard’s autobiographical drama. The intermissionless piece talks about an unexpected twist in a short story – then delivers a shocking one on stage.
The twist is based on fact: as a youth in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Fugard had one close friend, a black man named Sam Semela. Fugard betrayed him in an act so despicable it haunted the playwright for decades. And maybe still.
Master Harold recounts the pressures that prompt young “Hally” – i.e. Fugard – to do the unthinkable.
Willie and Sam, black men, work at St. George’s Park Tearoom in Port Elizabeth. Hally’s mother runs it. His abusive father is a “cripple,” which has pushed Hally toward the edge.
In some ways Sam’s become a father figure to the young man. They educate each other: Hally teaches facts and pseudo-philosophies dogmatically (he’s the dictionary definition of “sophomoric”), while Sam favors imagination, beauty, and the possibility of worlds where things don’t collide.
Willie, who says little and is trying to learn how to ballroom dance, offers glimpses of a far crueler world than Sam wants to acknowledge or Hally would understand.
What evolves – and could even more in the Living Light production – is a slow retreat from friendship to formality to unjustified rage. News of his father coming home from the hospital prompts Hally to break the bond. Sam senses the shift and tries to stop its progress.
The Living Light production benefits from George Gonzalez’s appealing set – the spotless tea room features an old, multi-hued jukebox – and Beth Kincaid Connelly’s costumes. Though Michael Hoffman’s lighting, which jumps from too bright to almost full darkness for big downstage moments, needs more subtlety.
As Willie, Vimel Sephus makes it hard to believe he’s relatively new to the stage. He moves like a savvy pro. Shaun T. Evans does standout work as wise, patient, Sam, who has an astonishing self-control at the end. Evans, who heads the California Youth Conservatory Theatre, also directed. This production, however, needed full-time guidance.
Young Austyn Myers, who formed the company, is an obvious talent (he’s performed several times at the Old Globe). His opening night as Hally had flashes, but far too often he gave each sentence an identical approach: he began with full vocal force, then sped through the middle with no enunciation, and trailed off at the end. It was hard to tell if these persistent troubles were opening night jitters or ingrained mannerisms. In either case, they detracted heavily from the story.