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THEATER REVIEW: Living Light Theater debuts with “Master Harold ... and the boys”

Growing up is never easy, especially not for Master Harold (“Hally”), whose familial teacher and role model is a drunk, crippled from war and simply not there for his son.

Starting a new theater company in this economic environment isn’t exactly a piece of cake either, but 16-year-old Austyn Myers, one of the best teen actors in these parts, is playing the first and doing the second, and a creditable production of Athol Fugard’s autobiographical “Master Harold ... and the boys” is the result.

Hally is 17 in post-World War II South Africa, which has recently established apartheid. Hally’s parents own a somewhat shabby tea room in Port Elizabeth, where this day it is raining buckets and the tea room is empty but for two black employees: waiter Sam (Shaun T. Evans) and Willie (Vimel Sephus), both in their mid-40s.

Willie is getting ballroom dance pointers from Sam in preparation for a championship contest. Willie is working hard, but Sam counsels, “Ballroom must look happy, Willie, not like hard work.”

Hally blows in complaining about the weather, and from their banter it soon becomes evident that the avuncular Sam has been playing stand-in for Hally’s father. Hally has brought Sam’s reading level up five grade levels; Sam has read the suggested books and can now argue history or literature with the boy.

A phone call from Hally’s mother sets in motion the events that will bring the unexpressed presence – racism – to the fore and force Hally to confront a part of himself he’d rather deny.

“Master Harold ... and the boys,” which runs through May 20 at San Diego Repertory’s Lyceum Space, is arguably Fugard’s best play. In 90 taut minutes, he shows us the conflict of society and individual and uses the graceful metaphor of dance to illustrate the human cost of prejudice.

Evans serves as both director and co-star (a neat trick when you’re in every scene). He’s played Sam twice before and is excellent here, expertly portraying Sam’s humanity, intelligence and common sense.

Despite his youth, Myers has Broadway credentials (“Les Misérables”), television experience and has acted locally at the Old Globe, among other venues. His Hally on opening night showed a bit of jitters, with a tendency to rush through lines. But he is a fine actor, and I’d bet that by now he has the nerves under control.

Vimel doesn’t have a showy part, but does an excellent job with what he’s given.

George Gonzalez’s set works well and Beth Connelly’s costumes are fitting, but the sound could be improved. Much of the play takes place at an upstage table; the floor mikes do not always pick up the sound adequately.

San Diego can always use another good theater company and Living Light Theatre is off to a fine start with “Master Harold ... and the boys.”

The details

Living Light Theatre’s production of “Master Harold ... and the boys” plays through May 20 at the Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.

Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 pm (except May 20, 1 pm only).

For tickets, call (619) 544-1000 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.