For South African playwright Athol Fugard, there’s something about sandwich shops that brings out deep emotions and profound truths from the lives of their everyday inhabitants. In “Master Harold…and the Boys,” the setting yielded a shocking and unexpected expression of raw prejudice erupting from years of apartheid. In “Have You Seen Us?,” a blessing of a play receiving its world premiere at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater, it’s also a moment that strikes with surprise, but this time it brings unexpected forgiveness of that very prejudice Fugard has spent a lifetime examining.
He had to travel half a world away, but Fugard finds absolution in a coffee shop in a struggling mini-mall, presumably around the San Diego area the 77-year-old playwright now calls home. He also finds it with an exceptional cast led by Sam Waterston, and in a sterling production, helmed by Gordon Edelstein, who also staged the premiere of Fugard’s last work, “Coming Home,” at Long Wharf.
Waterston plays Henry Parsons, a terrific creation in Fugard’s repertoire of vivid and engaging characters. Parsons is a 64-year-old South African who has lived in the U.S. for the past 15 years. He is also “a useless drunk,” on the wagon but anticipating another fall. “You’re sober now?” asks Mexican waitress Adela (Liza Colon-Zayas). “Yes, but I am not particularly enjoying it,” answers Henry.
Parsons is not particularly enjoying anything. Divorced, homesick and sad, he is hopelessly adrift: from a country that no longer has a place for him, from a family he fears he has lost, from a self he no longer can stand. Bedeviled by prejudice and wracked by guilt, he strikes out in anger, frustration and rejection.
But as played with intellectual vigor and without a shred of sentimentality by Waterston, he is someone we can’t dismiss. In an opening monologue Henry reveals a few things about himself, talks about his “bog of self pity,” and how he is “addicted to humiliation.” But mostly he tells about a momentous day two years ago in that sandwich shop (designed to dreary perfection by Eugene Lee) when, spurred by “one fucking rejection too many,” the dominoes of his life began to fall.
Waterston gives a stunning perf, complete with a crisp South African accent that matches his staccato delivery, filling his character’s speech with barbs and bristles. “I understand nothing,” he spits out of his sorry state.
As a teacher “of a dead language” (Old English classics), Henry is as lost as the missing wives and children on the “Have you seen us?” neighborhood flyer that serves as his bookmark. But these characters onstage are among the missing as well — refugees in search of home.
There’s sweet-singing, tough-talking waitress Adela, an adversary for Henry but also a touchstone for his own hidden humanity. Colon-Zayas plays both sides of the somewhat underwritten role of a strong-willed person who is also vulnerable and displaced.
Then there are customers Sol (Sol Frieder) and Rachel (Elaine Kussack), an elderly Jewish couple who prompt a deep-seated, disturbing reaction in Henry. Kussack is touching in the silent role of the fragile wife, while Frieder gives his character — and the play — its forgiving heart.
It’s a heart that harks back to “Master Harold” and the prejudices of that same young lad who spat in the faces of his beloved black friends in that Port Elizabeth tea house. In “Have You Seen Us?,” the boy has grown up and grown old. But with Fugard’s humanist hand he has at last exorcised the hatred in his soul and found something else quite wonderful there.