Awkward bits, creaky chairs mar Riverwalk’s potent “Master Harold”

Riverwalk’s Black Box production of “’Master Harold’…and the boys” had plenty of potent moments and an engaging storyline. Too many times, however, my appreciation was diverted by a variety of odd and avoidable distractions.

All through the evening, hiccups kept me from digesting playwright Athol Fugard’s meaty, moving dialogues about apartheid and relationships.

Some distractions were small but hard to ignore. The St. Andrews Tea Room was mopped, then swept, then dusted, then swept and mopped again, without once wringing out the mop or using a dustpan. A phone call was dialed directly, when in 1950’s South Africa, an operator would be needed to make the call. Repeated references were made about heavy rains that would limit customers, but I heard only one distinct clap of thunder.

More bothersome distractions included some highly animated figures in the sound booth above the right of the stage, in clear view throughout the play; speeches made by actors with their heads turned away from the audience; and one character’s hard-to-understand, not-quite-mastered accent.

Admittedly, my front-row seat had me extra aware of blemishes in the play, directed by Gabriel Francisco. Riverwalk’s Black Box stage was at floor level and close to the seats, putting the audience very close to the action and connected to the actors. That meant I was privy to the production’s shining moments as well.

Close proximity to Ndegwa McCloud’s booming voice and commanding presence made him especially forceful as Sam.

After seeing McCloud in past plays like “The Elephant’s Graveyard” and “Hoodoo Love,” I concluded that he could probably read an encyclopedia and still be powerful, and damned if that isn’t just what he did in “‘Master Harold’… and the boys.” The lines he read from an encyclopedia — like most of his deliveries — were packed with power. But even Sam was not immune to the distraction syndrome. In one bit, he served a bowl of “pea soup” that was clearly empty, and took it away before it was ever sampled.

The youthful Ayden Soupal, as Hally/ Master Harold, showed some power of his own during moments of anger and anguish in the second act. The Holt High School student added authenticity to his role as an emotional, white, South African student about to take exams. But it was hard not be distracted by Hally’s plain, beige tie, since it had none of the emblems or patterns you would expect in a real school uniform. In any case, it’s not hard for me to presume that Soupal had a promising acting future.

As Willie, Caleb Liggett was more timid than he should have been. In his first major role, Liggett’s acting had peaks and valleys. He shone in a scene where he pretended to have a hard time learning to dance, but his continual cleanings of the same stretch of floor were awkward and distracting.

The whole cast sometimes struggled with the copious dialogue that had to be spoken in an unfamiliar accent. The 105-minute-with-intermission “ ‘Master Harold’…and the boys” also had some racial insults and cruel behaviors that I struggled to sit through.

The play was performed with a very basic set designed by Randy Craven and embellished with extensive ‘50’s-era props by Arlena Craven. The Riverwalk production included a large clock that did not run, and creaky, rickety chairs for the cast, while more substantial chairs were placed at unused tables. These were the sort of things I found … distracting.

“Master Harold”… and the boys Continues 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 5 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Oct. 6-7 2 p.m. Sun., Oct.8 Riverwalk Theatre Black Box 228 Museum Dr., Lansing (518) 482-5700 $10-14