Fugard’s Trilogy Finale Offers Long Wharf Another Winner
By Julie Stern
NEW HAVEN — In my opinion, Athol Fugard is possibly the greatest living playwright, and if not, then certainly a towering force in the theater today. Connecticut is lucky in that over the years, he has chosen it as the venue for each of his new works, first at Westport and then Yale, and more recently at Long Wharf.
Last year, Coming Home was clearly the best entry in what was for Long Wharf a very good season. Now Fugard has followed that up in what he envisions as the third in a trilogy. While Coming Home was a story about a young black South African woman returning to the farm where she grew up, Have You Seen Us is set in southern California, and deals with an alienated white professor. What ties them together is the time frame: they take place in the post-Apartheid era, when the promise of a changing world has not brought about the hoped-for end to the pain and bitterness that disrupted so many lives.
Billed as a one-act play (it runs about an hour and half in duration), Have You Seen Me is a tour de force for Law and Order star Sam Waterston, who serves as the narrator and protagonist whose life is changed forever by a brief encounter with three lost souls, in the haunting sterility of a strip mall.
Clad in a rain jacket and battered trilby, peering from under an umbrella with the lugubriously mobile face of a tired bloodhound, Henry begins his story. The unmistakable inflections of Johannesburg in his speech immediately wipe out all thoughts of Jack McCoy. Waterston is Henry Parsons, a 64-year old South African exile, who loiters outside the closed store on a rainy Christmas eve.
This is a pilgrimage of sorts; he has returned for two years in a row now, to the place where his transformation happened. Amid a neon wilderness of American fast food franchises, Parsons had fallen into the habit of eating at this cramped little diner, where he could get a real sandwich of turkey with lettuce, tomato and sprouts, on whole wheat bread, to eat in solitude while he reads his book.
Henry’s customary relationship with the waitress-proprietor has always been hostile, trading malicious insults in a vicious form of verbal combat. Adela, the waitress, spots him for the alcoholic he is, contemptuously dismissing him as a borracho perdido, a drunken loser, while he taunts her for being a Mexican greaseball.
On the Christmas Eve in question, the intensity of their clash was so brutal that he fled the restaurant without finishing his meal. An encounter in the fog with an elderly Jewish couple upset him even further, to the point that he stayed away for weeks, planning an appropriately devastating rejoinder.
What happens when he finally returns to the sandwich store forms the core of this riveting piece of theater. Parsons comes armed with one of those “Have You Seen Us?” pieces of junk mail, featuring missing children. The faces on this flyer have Spanish names, and he plans to use it in connection with the threat of alerting the Immigration officials to Adela’s status as an illegal.
Even as he begins this opening gambit, he is unexpectedly moved by her voice as , with her back turned, and unaware of his presence, she sings a Mexican song.
The capacity of music to unlock memories, and summon up feelings of what Adela calls nostalgica, opens the way to a far more meaningful exchange. Henry reveals the way his alcoholism cost him his marriage and his daughter. Adela shares her story of being orphaned in a small village, raised by a beloved abuelita (grandmother), who had once been a soldadera, a female soldier fighting in the revolution alongside Zapata, and when her abuelita died, migrating to America where she was abandoned by an irresponsible husband.
The song Adela sings is one that her grandmother taught her, to give her courage. Henry responds by croaking out the Afrikaaner words of the fight song of the Stellenbosch Rugby Club. These are the remnants of happier memories, but America is a country filled with exiles; their surroundings are foreign and unsatisfying, but they can never go home because the world they remember, no longer exists.
Into the restaurant come the old Jewish couple, Solly and Rachel, who are doubly lost. Not only are they refugees who have never really adjusted to this country, but Rachel is drifting in the throes of dementia. As her husband tenderly cares for her, he too sings a song from the past.
For Henry, the experience moves him to confront his own demons and the issue of racial prejudice as it still exists in our society. That is the essential theme of the play. It is Fugard’s genius as a playwright that he is able to make his audience identify with it so completely, and to feel so deeply moved by the chance interplay of these characters on a single lonely night. Our nostalgica connects us all as human beings. Perhaps it can lead us to a place beyond hate.
Waterston, whose actual stage credits far outweigh his Law and Order years, is magnificent here, but he is equally matched by Liza Colon-Zayas in her performance as the suspicious, surly Adela, who finds herself moved to reveal hidden depths. In the much smaller parts, Sol Frieder and Elaine Kussack round out the cast with timid, gallant dignity.
Fugard is a powerful and gifted dramatist. Under Gordon Edelstein’s direction, Long Wharf is giving his newest world premiere a fine production. Gripping and entertaining, as all Fugard’s plays are, this is definitely worth going to see. It’s only on until December 20, so get tickets now.
(Contact Long Wharf at 203-787-4282 or LongWharf.org for curtain and ticket details.)