As Isabel Dyson, an 18-year-old South African high school student, Legault is idealistic, assertive, vulnerable, rebellious, naïve, intelligent and utterly persuasive. As she tries to make a relationship with black South African Thami Mbikwana, solidly played by Joshua Goff (in one of his best performances also), she constantly reminds us that white good intentions just werent enough under apartheid, and that individual acts of decency were finally no match for mass action. Legaults attention to detail as she plays youthful Isabel is nothing short of riveting.
From her South African accent to the anguished gestures of her eloquent hands, shes the bright, sincere schoolgirl who just cant understand why political stalemates cant be solved with a little goodwill. Shes enamored of Thamis charismatic teacher Mr. M played perhaps with too much conscious heroism by LeRoy Mitchell, Jr. and she honestly believes that by teaming up with Thami in a relatively unimportant school competition, she can make a real difference in South African race relations. Fugards play may be imperfect its about a half-hour too long, and states some of its cases too repetitively but Legaults performance is just about impeccable. I can hardly wait to see what shell do next.
When My Children! My Africa! Starts, Isabel is debating male/female equality with Thami as Mr. M. looks on. We understand that were in a black township high school, and that Isabel is a guest from a much wealthier white area. We also learn that Thami is Mr. Ms prize student, the one whom he thinks he can shape, in his autocratic way, into an extraordinary adult. Its Mr. M. who has the idea of pairing Isabel and Thami in a local school competition on the subject of 19th century English literature, and its Mr. M. who drills both of them on questions about the Lake Poets, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley.
But as this earnest experiment in racial harmony gets underway, a more obstreperous movement is gaining momentum in the streets. Frustration with apartheid is turning into collective action, with the black comrades calling for a boycott of the inferior black schools by students like Thami. Things get more confused when lover-of-learning Mr. M. declares himself against the boycott, and when Thami warns his teacher that the latter is getting a reputation as a stooge of the white power structure. Before the play ends, just about everything weve seen is called into question, from the relationship of Isabel and Thami to Thamis respect for his elderly teacher. Theres violence too, and its aftermath. Finally everything has changed.
The Stageworks production is beautifully directed and designed. Anna Brennen once again elicits top work from her actors, and R. T. Williams set, suggesting a schoolroom, orderly inside, but put together with wood and scrap tin, is spacious and oddly attractive. Amy Ciancis fine costuming includes an oversized sweater-vest for Mr. M., plaid skirt and blazer for Isabel, and gym shorts for Thami when he comes in from the athletic field. As everyone should know by now, Karla Hartley is the best lighting designer in the Bay area, and she creates this plays atmospheres with her usual flair. Shes also responsible for the fine sound design, featuring African vocalists between scenes.
Anyway, welcome back to Tampa, Mr. Fugard. Its been too long since your last appearance.
And welcome to our stages, Ms. Legault.