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NOT VERY TIMELY, BUT STILL TIMELESS

Athol Fugard's My Children! My Africa!is anything but timely. Set against the beginnings of the mid 1980s sociopolitical upheaval in South Africa, it examines issues long since resolved.

But the end of apartheid is the most superficial of the play's explorations. Fugard, the phenomenal South African playwright probably best known for Master Harold ... and the Boys serves up a banquet of luscious ideas, from the power of language to the relative value of revolution and accommodation.

And perhaps most essentially, he blends those ideas into an intimate story of three people who love each other but whose age, race and belief systems violently rip them away from one another.

So timely it isn't, but timeless it most certainly is.

A couple of extraordinary performances make the current Stageworks production at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center even more compelling than Fugard's script.

LeRoy Mitchell and Joshua Goff are a devoted teacher and his favorite student in a school for black children. (They both played the same roles in a University of South Florida production more than a decade ago.) Joining them is Dahlia Legault as a privileged but thoughtful white girl who becomes a friend to both men.

Mitchell's Mr. M is devoutly intellectual and finds relief from the oppression of apartheid in words, ideas and literature. Goff, as his student Tommy, delights in 19th century British poetry but gradually comes to see force as the only solution to tyranny. Through her friendship with them, Legault's character starts to question the way of life she has known for her 18 years.

All three actors are solid, but the performances by Mitchell and Legault are special. Legault's is probably more impressive because she's riveting even though her character is the least interesting of the three. Mitchell's character is much more dynamic, and he enriches that character with energy and depth.

Goff is fine, despite being noticeably too old for the role. It's kind of a one-note performance, though. If there's a major weakness in the script, it's the sketchy manner with which Fugard handles Tommy's transformation from a Wordsworth-quoting academic into a brutish revolutionary. That makes Goff's job tough, and he doesn't quite bring enough texture to the character to help us understand Tommy. Goff is an exceptionally charismatic actor, so we sympathize with Tommy, but we don't really understand his conversion.

The only other significant problem is a long and talky first act. But just before intermission, Fugard switches gears gradually and the play moves from intellectual exercise to a touching personal drama with passion to equal its ideas.

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IF YOU GO

'My Children! My Africa!'

Plays through Sept. 20 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Shimberg Playhouse. About 165 minutes. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. $24.50 plus service charge. (813) 229-7827 or tbpac.org.

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