Generally speaking, Rob Cleveland is always a likable presence on stage. Whether he’s performing as an educational storyteller (in residence at the Fernbank Museum) or as a stand-up comedian (hosting the local Suzi Awards ceremony), he tends to bring a highly personable charm to his work that makes him easily recognizable.
As a legitimate theater actor, Cleveland’s storied career spans four decades. But his casual reputation often seems to precede him in terms of how infrequently he gets to sink his teeth into a really meaty role or put his acting chops to any serious test. His last dramatic showcase was playing Hoke (wonderfully) in Theatrical Outfit’s “Driving Miss Daisy” back in 2009.
Director Jaclyn Hofmann’s rather accomplished Aurora Theatre production of “Master Harold … and the Boys” is another welcome reminder of what a commanding force Cleveland can be. Athol Fugard’s 1982 one-act drama takes place in apartheid-era South Africa, where the larger social, political and racial conflicts of the time take shape in the relationship between a privileged white teenager and two of his family’s black servants.
Cleveland portrays Sam, the older and wiser of them, opposite Christopher M. Watson as his assistant, Willie, and Hazen Cuyler as their pampered young charge, affectionately known as Hally — at least until certain events compel him to evoke his “rightful” name of Master Harold.
Sam proves to be a worthy sparring partner for the precocious Hally. As the studious kid prattles on about historic heroes, religious prophets and the “intellectual heritage of civilization,” Sam balances the debate with articulate and thoughtful alternative views. Not surprisingly, what one of them remembers about a crucial kite-flying incident from Hally’s childhood isn’t necessarily how the other one remembers it.
From loving mentor to shrewd devil’s advocate, from hopeful reason to angry futility, Cleveland expertly conveys the full range of Sam’s emotions. Based on his opening-night performance, alas, Cuyler is no match. He’s too tentative in the quieter moments and too histrionic in the most heated, with an irritating way of avoiding eye contact with the other characters, as if talking around them instead of to them, or not so much listening as waiting for his next line cue.
Mounted in Aurora’s second, more intimate studio space, Hofmann’s staging is otherwise tight and focused. The actual setting is a small cafe, but Lee Maples’ atmospheric scenic design also features a striking backdrop that includes chain-link fence, a large cutout of the African continent and periodic downpours of water to represent the stormy weather brewing (literally and figuratively) right outside.
Subtle shifts in James M. Helms’ lighting provide a suitable dream-life quality to parts of the play. In one pivotal scene, Hofmann uses a shadow figure to particularly haunting effect.
But it’s Cleveland who ultimately gives this human drama its lasting flesh and blood.