"Have You Seen Us?" at Long Wharf Theatre thru Dec. 20 

By Tom Nissley

There is a place in Torah describing events at Sinai which, correctly translated into English, reads "the people heard the lightning and saw the thunder." Is it the result of an accidental transposition long ago, copied again and again, or did the writer mean it to stimulate our thinking about perceptions? When you see Athol Fugard’s new play, "Have You Seen Us?," playing at Long Wharf until December 20, you will understand why I recall that phrase so easily.

The play, with four characters together for a short time in a small cafe, is a tour de force that offers lessons of life about getting sober, living away from abuse, and the vicious business of the prejudice within. Henry Parsons (Sam Waterson) is a professor and a drunk who has been coming to Adela’s sandwich counter as a regular, always for a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread, and to fight with her over the differences between them. To Adela (Liza Colon-Zayas) he is a gringo, and even though he protests that he is not an American (he is a transplant from South Africa) she fires back that he knows nothing about the Mexican culture and language even though he has lived a stone’s throw from Mexico for a long time.

Parsons collects "Have You Seen Us?" flyers. He has 88 of them - the last one shows a Mexican mother and daughter. Adela assures him they will not be seen, because her husband beat her and was awarded their daughter in a divorce. But the mother calmly picked the daughter up at school one day and took her into Mexico, where they will stay. Parsons begins to see Adela, however, when he listens to her singing a song and gets her to translate it for him into English. It is a song that Adela’s grandmother, who was a freedom fighter - a soldadera - in the Mexican revolution, taught her and then loved to hear when she was old and weak. Parsons is captivated by the meaning of the song.

When another couple of patrons - very old and Jewish - enter the café looking for chicken soup, Parsons quietly reacts with anger and prejudice. But the couple strolls away, and that gives Parsons time to tell Adela how he had seen a hate phrase chalked on the sidewalk and had done nothing to remove it... how he recognized that inside himself he agreed with the ugly anti-Semitic words, and how it scared him to discover this anger he took for granted, that no one in his background had taught him was evil. Scratching the words on the menu board, Parsons also scares Adela, and she hastily erases them just as the old couple returns. They cannot have ham or chili, but settle on a turkey sandwich, which Solly (Sol Frieder) carefully cuts in little pieces for the motionless Rachel (Elaine Kussack), and then sings to her a song in Yiddish about a son who tells his father about his wish to live long and well so that he can teach his own children Torah, praise the Holy One, and have a blessed life. A certain magic happens as we realize that Rachel has dementia. Solly gently sings to her because it helps her to eat. Parsons demands to hear the song again - to have it translated for him, too. As Solly sings it again, Rachel halfway mouths the words as if to sing along, and tentatively picks up a fork. It is the closest that the beautiful Ms. Kussack comes to speaking in this production, and it moves audience and Parsons alike.

Suddenly he asks Solly to forgive him. "I forgive you," says Solly, "but for what?" Parsons explains that he hated Solly. "You were a jew." "I still am," says Solly. "But now I love you," says Parsons. It’s a beautiful conversion that will hold you spellbound as you listen to spectacular performances by the company of four, and having heard them, you will have seen them. Hurrah for Torah! Fugard too!

Try not to miss this production. It’s going to impact a lot of lives. One of them should be yours. Tickets and information at www.longwharf.org

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre  December 2, 2009

Tom Nissley is a well-known realtor in New Canaan, and a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. He has reviewed plays and music events that expand the quality of life in Connecticut for 25 years, and he's also available, of course, to consult with you about real estate.

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