IT’S EASY TO get emotionally entwined in the harsh finger-pointing that sees the elderly of a community abandoned. It makes for predictable storytelling and indictments on the callousness of the younger generation. What is more difficult is representing the other side of a story that is about rejection and grandstanding, discrimination and a lack of forgiveness. This is the great edge of Jeff Baron’s play, Visiting Mr Green as it slices open the inner life of a little old Jewish man (played impeccably by Michael Richard), with European roots, fresh widowhood and not much of a will to live.
Skip two generations in American Jewry and enter Ross Gardiner (Roberto Pombo), a young Harvard graduate who made a traffic error and is here in this cluttered little one bedroomed flat on a weekly basis, as penance. And thus unfolds a quirky and deeply moving tale that takes the two characters on an unexpectedly intimate journey of self discovery.
And while you think you know what you can anticipate in this story, which on a level seems to echo the narratives lines in works such as Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie and Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks – both of which have been staged in this theatre – in that it’s about the fierceness of an ageing person to protect their dignity at all costs, and their making friends with a young stranger, there’s a twist in the tale in this one that will take your breath away. Visiting Mr Green is a play that takes no prisoners in how it reflects on the persecution issues but also the deeply grounded biases of a certain generation of Jewry. And there are statements and interjections that pepper the text to make you cringe. Beautifully.
Ultimately, it’s a work which offers the main protagonist a vindication for values and opinions so old and crusty that he’s learnt to take them as truths. If you were shattered by the volte face movement in Retief Scholtz’s Dop — and his Karel se Oupa — this play will touch you to the core.
The work is crafted with an immensely sophisticated understanding of these people and this generation, and design elements complement the material so well that you can almost smell the must in the neglected apartment as the waterworks reverberate rudely. There’s an interesting use of radio advertisements and Yiddish songs and doggerel from 1950s America to separate the work into scenes, and Pombo opposite Richard is absolutely magnificent. There’s an energy of empathetic choreography here that uplifts the old man as it gives the young one soul. In this, work we see Pombo coming into his own as a serious performer, with a sense of authority, dignity and discipline that is a joy to watch. Richard embraces all the endearing and horrifying curmudgeonly behaviour of Mr Green who softens as the play unfolds, but who represents the hard shell of stubbornness, with utter conviction, Polish Yiddish accent flavoured with a taste of New York, completely intact.
It’s a dream team that lends this work edge and relevance, toughness and beauty in a complex and nuanced context, brought to life with rigorously kosher values and unrelenting judgmentalism. You might have a Mr Green in your own roots. Don’t forget to bring tissues.
- Visiting Mr Green is written by Jeff Baron and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It features design by Denis Hutchinson (set and lighting), Margo Fleish (costumes), Dean Pitman (soundscape) and Stan Knight (set construction) and is performed by Roberto Pombo and Michael Richard, at Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until June 9. Call 011-883-8606