An Exercise in Epiphany for Epiphany’s Sake
By Geary Danihy
Near the end of Have You Seen Us?, a new play by Athol Fugard that recently premiered at Long Wharf Theatre, Henry Parsons (Sam Waterston), goes on bended knee to beg forgiveness from Solly (Sol Frieder), an elderly Jewish man. Solly readily grants absolution and then asks, “What have you done?” The line gets a laugh, perhaps for unintentional reasons, for the question points out one of the major flaws in this unfocused drama directed by Long Wharf’s artistic director Gordon Edelstein.
The problem is that Parsons really hasn’t done anything save the misfortune of having been born in the Union of South Africa at a time when apartheid was in full bloom. Hence he is a product of his times and is not responsible either for his nativity or an upbringing that inculcated him with certain prejudices.
Set in a down-at-heels coffee shop in Southern California, the play opens with Parsons delivering a somewhat pretentious monologue that includes the announcement that he has experienced an epiphany -- woe betide a play whose playwright feels compelled to point out an epiphany will occur. Apparently Fugard feared the audience wouldn’t “get it’ when said revelation happened. He needn’t have worried.
Also included in this monologue is the information that Parsons has had a long-running love/hate relationship with Adela (Liza Colón-Zayas), a waitress at the coffee shop who, though relatively uneducated, often gets the best of this college professor, a man who bemoans the fact that he teaches “dead literature” to essentially “dead” students.
Most of the play focuses on the relationship between Parsons and Adela, including much verbal jousting that is less than engaging, mainly because the professor’s badinage is essentially sophomoric. Surely this acerbic professor of literature can come up with something better than constant references to Adela’s anatomy and ethnic origin.
In any event, Parsons eventually unburdens himself to Adela, speaking of his alcoholism, the loss of his family due to the illness, and his many lonely years as an expatriate in the United States. The audience is asked to invest a lot of time and attention in this relationship, which would lead one to believe that the aforementioned epiphany will rise out of the contest between the two main characters. Alas, such is not the case, for Fugard has another ax to grind: anti-Semitism. It is intrusive and ultimately creates a climax that is forced and false.
Fugard does at least prepare for this shift during the opening monologue when Solly, along with his wife Rachel (Elaine Kussack), shuffles past the professor, who wishes the couple a “Happy Christmas” only to be told by Solly that they are Jewish. Solly certainly doesn’t take umbrage, but apparently this information festers inside the professor. He takes offense when none is meant, and it is this offense, which has nothing to do with the Parsons-Adela relationship, that will, along with some anti-Semitic graffiti that Parsons sees (but is not responsible for) in a parking lot, that fuels the climax.
The elderly couple eventually reappears in the coffee shop, at which time Solly, in an effort to console his wife over the loss of their son (the reason for said loss is never mentioned), croons a Jewish folk song to her. Parsons asks that the old man sing the song again. Solly complies and this leads, without further ado, to Parson’s epiphany. “I hated you,” Parsons tells Solly on bended knee, “and now I love you.” Just like that! One song and Parsons is cured of his prejudices. If you believe that, then I’ve got a lovely bridge I can sell you at a discount.
It is unfortunate that the play does not live up to its potential, for the cast members do everything in their power to provide meaning and gravitas to the production. Waterston crafts an incisive portrait, complete with shaking hands and eyes that occasionally confront a dark eternity, of a man on the brink of dissolution desperately clinging to his shredded dignity. Playing off him, Colón-Zayas is a woman fighting to control her emotions while giving better than she gets in the jousting with the professor. Frieder and Kussack (who has no lines in the play) are the essence of aged fragility, providing the audience with a husband and wife who have apparently suffered much (are they Holocaust victims?) yet are still touchingly devoted to each other.
That the audience’s attention is held as long as it is on this uneven drama is a credit to the cast’s talent and Edelstein’s confident direction. However, all of the talent on display cannot hide the fact that Have You Seen Us? is, at its core, hollow. Perhaps Fugard should have named his protagonist South Africa rather than Henry Parsons, for it is this “benighted” country that remains Fugard’s focus. The playwright still has something to say about his homeland; unfortunately, what that is does not come to dramatic life in his latest effort.
Have You Seen Us? runs through Sunday, Dec. 20. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.
This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.