Proving a Point
By David A. Rosenberg
Athol Fugard has given us some of the most searing plays of our times, works that speak against injustice in their search for a common humanity. That his South African background, with its years of apartheid and hatred, must gnaw at his soul is evidenced by “Have You Seen Us?” now in its world premiere engagement at Long Wharf.
How satisfying it would be to say the new work takes its place beside such memorable pieces as his “Master Harold and the Boys,” “Road to Mecca,” Sizwe Bansi is Dead,” “Bloodknot” and “Boseman and Lena.” Alas, that’s not to be, for “Have You Seen Us?” is a thesis play, a thin, underdeveloped work that glosses over drama to prove a point.
Its main interest rests in Sam Waterston’s performance as a displaced South African, an outcast from country and family who faces harsh truths about himself. The actor, whose Connecticut theater forays have not always been felicitous, here outdoes himself, demonstrating that all those years in TV’s wasteland have not lessened the distinction of someone who long ago made his mark in “Hamlet” and “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” Here, as Henry Parsons, a classics professor somewhere in Southern California, he limns a biting, pathetic portrait of a man who has so retreated into himself that his only outside recreation is exchanging barbs with Adela, a local Mexican-born waitress.
Since he also has an encounter with an elderly Jewish couple, Solly and Rachel, audiences should be able to see a lesson coming a mile away. Indeed, Fugard seems to be writing an expiatory work out of guilt and a need to square all corners.
His alcoholic hero starts by explaining who he is and how he spends his time at a strip-mall sandwich shop. “Have you ever wondered at coincidences?” he asks. It’s a question that will come back to bite the author for the play’s contrivances require more suspension of disbelief than usual. Even if you can go along, Henry’s sudden insights, his lightning-bolt changes, his implausible moments of abject apology are hard to accept.
Brought up in times when apartheid ruled South Africa, Henry stands for all who blame their feelings on their backgrounds. “Yes, they are part of my heritage as a South African,” he says. “What that benighted country can do to a human being. The monster has a name – prejudice, hatred, fear. It’s endemic to that beautiful country of mine.”
What breaks down the barriers to Henry’s heart are songs: Adela’s, Solly’s, his own rugby fight song. It’s not a leap to suppose Fugard sees art as the great leveler. Fine and dandy, but he muddies his tale with unfulfilling sidetrips into stories about revolutionaries and even the missing persons analogy that gives the evening its title.
Gordon Edelstein’s smooth direction tries to put flesh and blood into characters that are more attitudes than real people. Good an actress as she is, Liza Colón-Zayas as the Mexican waitress is a weak antagonist. As the Jewish couple, Sol Frieder is empathetic, while Elaine Kussack, in a silent role, looks properly careworn.