A Visit With Jewish War Veterans
“Visiting Mr. Green” at the Hedgerow Theater
-- Henrik Eger
Some time ago, the Jewish War Veterans of Delaware County (near Philadelphia) invited me to conduct a workshop, “We are what we say.” Being German and non-Jewish, I almost felt like a modern-day Daniel entering a Jewish lions’ den. I went extra early to the synagogue to get to know the World War II veterans a bit better before the program began. The educational director had promised not to reveal my nationality to anyone, but almost everyone asked me all the same. I told them that I would share that later. “Oh, we know,” most of the war veterans said, “you’re from England.” I smiled and thanked them.
And then we sat together in a large circle and I asked the person to my left to introduce himself with something about his family name and then to share one thing that made him special. The stories about Jewish names were delightful, sometimes sad, at other times hilarious. Everyone had something special to share about his or her life. After the last person had introduced herself, it was my turn, and I revealed what I had so carefully concealed all this time:
“Thank you for your invitation. I feel very honored,” I began. The whole group smiled and nodded, and then I opened up, “I was born in the wrong country at the wrong time.” The seniors in their 70s, 80s, and 90s looked puzzled. And then I said it, “I was born during World War II in Nazi Germany with the swastika on my birth certificate. My father hated Jews, and through his writing as a propaganda officer and war correspondent, contributed to the misery of the Third Reich.”
The silence, the disbelief, and the sadness in the faces of the Jewish war veterans who had been most welcoming during the reception hit me hard, but I had to come clean, had to share with them where I came from, and that it was an honor for me to meet the very people whom my father had maligned through his writing.
And then the workshop began. It was an uphill battle at first as some of the seniors were struggling with the fact that the “young man” who had come to visit was not who they thought he was, say a nice gentleman from Britain, but the son of parents who supported the Third Reich.
Visiting Mr. Baron and Mr. Green at Philadelphia’s oldest theatre
I thought of that first experience with the Jewish war veterans when I saw Jeff Baron’s famous Visiting Mr. Green at the Hedgerow, the oldest theatre in the Philadelphia area, a former grist mill in the middle of the woods, directed by Roberta Sloan, Professor and Chair of the Theater Department at Temple University. I saw the play that is so popular that it has been translated into 22 languages, performed in 38 countries, and to this day is performed somewhere on the globe at any given time. And most likely, someone is working on yet another translation. Apart from Shakespeare, few playwrights can boast such popularity.
In Israel alone, the Cameri Theatre production of Visiting Mr. Green, simply called Mr. Green there, has become the longest running play in Israeli history. Since its opening in July 2001, there have been more than 500 performances throughout Israel. And in Germany, according to the playwright’s website, “There have been 24 separate productions of Besuch bei Mr. Green [. . .], and the play often returns for a second or third season [. . .] The fourth tour visited 42 cities across Germany in 2007. A fifth tour took place in early 2008.”
Just as I had tried to hide my identity as a German “goy” so as not to upset my Jewish hosts, so Ross Gardiner (the dashing Damon Bonetti, one of Philadelphia’s best actors who consistently performs with a precision rarely seen among young performers), conceals an important part of his life.
The playwright produced a powerful dynamic by juxtaposing the working-class hero of the play who hides behind his wonderful marriage of many decades, claiming repeatedly, “We were married for 59 years, we never argued, not even once.” Mr. Green perpetually uses the Jewish religion as a shield from which he runs his attacks on Ross, the wealthy, young, Harvard-educated American Express manager. Because of an accident where Mr. Green fell in front of Ross’ car, Ross was forced by a judge to act as a kind of assistant social worker, visiting Mr. Green’s once a week and helping him get on with his daily life.
When a bitter old man becomes a new father
We see a grumpy old Mr. Green (Alan Kutner, a witty actor and charming gentleman in real-life and on stage, but also a tough cookie when the role demands it), well-fed by his doting wife of almost 60 years, but deteriorating now since her death several months earlier. He loses almost all interest in life, aside from religiously wearing his kippah in the apartment, until the young visitor rejuvenates him. The young Ross finds the old man a complicated human being who has harbored a secret of his own: Mr. Green has declared as dead his daughter Rachel, who had married a non-Jew.
Many years ago, rigid and unwilling to forgive, let alone accept his daughter’s decision, he had sat shiva for Rachel, unaware of the historical facts (as described by Rabbi Alfred J. Kolatch in vol. 2 of The Jewish Book Of Why):
“This custom [of sitting Shiva] is based on a misunderstanding that dates back to the publication in the twelfth century of Or Zarua, by Rabbi Isaac of Vienna. In this book, Rabbi Isaac reported that the great eleventh-century scholar Rabbenu Gershom ben Yehuda, known as the Luminary of the Diaspora (Meor Hagola), sat Shiva for his son who had converted to Christianity. Upon publication of the book, it became widespread practice to sit Shiva for one's child who converts, despite the fact that outstanding scholars, including Joseph Caro, author of the Code of Jewish Law, insisted that doing so is not the law and hence is not appropriate conduct [. . .]. To sit Shiva for a family member who converts is, in a sense, consigning him to death, thus precluding the possibility of his ever returning to the faith of his ancestors.”
Sloan, the director, did not shy away from presenting one of the most damning utterances by old Mr. Green who, upon finding out that his young visitor is not heterosexual, accuses him and all gay people of pederasty, unaware that he is spouting off the kind of unqualified prejudice that has been similarly hurled against Jewish people as mean money-grabbers.
Although Mr. Green begrudgingly accepts that Ross goes shopping for him, feeds him, and tidies up every week, he gets very upset upon learning that the young Jewish visitor is gay: “Maybe you didn’t know this. Jewish boys are not faygeles,” he pontificates, reminiscent of the Iranian president who recently told the world that there are no gay people in his country.
Sloan goes even further in making visible the wall that the cantankerous, rigid, and homophobic Mr. Green creates between himself and Ross. Building the traditional tallit into her superb production at the Hedgerow Theatre, Sloan propels Mr. Green’s transformation from a working-class senior in a dilapidated New York apartment into a high priest. Upon learning of the young man’s lifestyle, Mr. Green turns the morning prayer shawl into a mourning shawl, almost militantly adorning himself with it as though it were his armor.
Tallit-cladded Green both ignores Ross and, at the same time, dramatically tries to exorcise the young man from the “evil spirit” of homosexuality so that, hopefully, he can marry and produce Jewish children. Mr. Green fails to understand that just as people are left-handers or are born into their ethnic groups, human beings have no choice over their sexual orientation. Ross tries to help the old man understand: “All I’m saying is that being Jewish . . . you know what it’s like to be hated for something you can’t change.”
Instead of responding logically, Mr. Green simply ignores his Samaritan and leaves him standing there, shutting him out by closing the door behind him. Here we see another of the many examples of Baron’s well-written play, in which every move suggests that he knows both characters intimately well, so much so that Martin Andrucki, Professor of Theater at Bates College, considers Mr. Green to be an “emotionally-frozen old man” who “clings so tightly to his orthodox identity that he is strangling his own soul, committing spiritual suicide.”
Convinced of his values as being the rule by which everything and everybody else has to be measured, Mr. Green tries several times, albeit unsuccessfully, to dispense grandfatherly wisdom on marriage to Ross, the Jewish bachelor, even though it would violate the young man’s sense of being.
Having tried unsuccessfully to change Ross’ way of life, Mr. Green surrenders, feeling betrayed by Ross’ gayness, and exclaims: “Get out of my house! . . . You and my daughter. You think you know everything.” In a virulent attack against Ross’ sexual orientation, Mr. Green aligns Ross with his daughter in a category of “bad” Jews:
“Here’s what you and Rachel learned in college. You learned how to exterminate the Jews. Mazel Tov. Thanks to you two, no more Jews will be born. You’re finishing the job for Hitler.” Trying to break up Mr. Green’s close-mindedness about same-sex attraction and interfaith marriage, Ross retorts: “But if Rachel is Jewish, the children would be Jewish.” Mr. Green, unfazed, concludes: “Yeah. . . Jewish like you. Who needs it?”
Dried, old flowers or fresh flowers?
In vignette after vignette, we see two lives converge and collide, for example, in a genuine attempt to help Mr. Green clean up his apartment—and his stagnated life—Ross discards the old flowers and replaces them with fresh flowers. However, once Ross recognizes his faux pas, he quickly retrieves the old, thistle-like bouquet of dried out, dead flowers for his late wife. Through this incident, Ross learns to have respect for Mr. Green’s past, while Mr. Green slowly accepts fresh flowers in his old vase—new life inside the silent four walls of his apartment. These scenes were masterfully handled by the director and performed by two excellent actors, Bonetti and Kutner, as powerful in their speech as in their gestures.
The persona of Mr. Green is based on the playwright’s rather difficult grandmother while the young visitor is based on the author himself, a Harvard graduate who worked as an American Express manager, ready to climb the corporate ladder, before he gave it up and became one of America’s most widely performed playwrights. Sloan, the director, created many moving and thought-provoking moments which had the audience laugh a lot but also fight tears on more than one occasion.
She also handled some of the more sensitive parts of the play with great delicacy, for example, when Mr. Green, full of enthusiasm, recollects the time in his youth when he was waiting outside the building’s toilet—shared by several families—where he met Yetta, a young Russian immigrant. She didn’t speak English, but he communicated beautifully with her in Yiddish, so much so that they married shortly thereafter.
Ross, aware that the old man is refusing to eat properly and, through his self-neglect, committing a kind of slow suicide, tells him point-blank: “If you don’t eat, you’ll die. . . . You seem like a very religious man, so I’m sure you know this—I even remember it from Hebrew school. Jews aren’t allowed to commit suicide.”
In several scenes, we see the mental deterioration of Mr. Green, from collapsing on the floor to sleepwalking, believing that Ross is his wife—a scene acted in most moving ways by Kutner, whose gestures, facial, and physical expressions cover a wide range of feelings and emotions throughout the play, especially in the somnambulism scene. Taking on an almost father-like role in this very delicate situation, Bonetti as Ross, presents a most convincing, responsible young man taking care of a person struggling with dementia.
To connect the audience with the world of an old Jew who lives in the past, the director has added Yiddish music in between most scenes, to create an atmosphere in which two cultures and lifestyles are clashing. The play is so well constructed that each gut-wrenching moment is balanced by a humorous scene which had the audience in stitches. For example, when Ross, trying to convince Mr. Green that he is Jewish, too, switches into a thick New-York-Jewish accent, imitating Mr. Green: “Who told you I wasn’t Jewish?”
Another fascinating clash of cultures occurs when Mr. Green recognizes that the Harvard-educated young Jew doesn’t even know the most basic of Yiddish terms, traditions, and vocabulary. So, very patiently, Mr. Green tries to explain the difference between “milchik” and “fleyshik” and how one must keep cutlery and plates separate for milk products and meat products, something that Ross, a secular Jew, doesn’t seem to understand. Yet, in a way, both men tolerate each other.
Near the end of the play, the grumpy, bitter, old Mr. Green lets go of his anger and embraces Ross, who had practically lost his own father who had mocked him publicly—expressing homophobia in front of his own son at a family gathering in New York. The tension in the audience about such injustice was so great that when Mr. Green finally accepts Ross the way he is and when the old man becomes the young man’s father—in a wider sense of the word—the theatre erupted into a spontaneous, long, and liberating applause.
Invite your friends
I won’t give away the moving ending, but the long, unanticipated hug of Ross and Mr. Green, reminded me of the workshop with the Jewish war veterans, during which I received more hugs than at any other meeting. I was invited back several times. Later, when the Jewish war veterans lost their synagogue as it was torn down, making them homeless, they accepted my invitation and came to my house for a meeting. This gathering with the Jewish war veterans at my house, with more hugs, was one of the greatest gifts, one of the greatest honors, in my life.
The director summarized the essence of Visiting Mr. Green, that crossing of cultural bridges and misunderstandings: “The play is as pertinent today as it was then, because it is an exploration of what it means to be human and to connect with one another despite our differences.” If you have not seen this fine production yet, make sure to call your friends, especially those who live alone or could do with a good dose of warmth and life during these cold days. Get tickets, snow or no snow, and hug each other. You will not regret it, nor will your friends.
Henrik Eger, Ph.D., professor of English and Communication at DCCC; author of the docudrama Metronome Ticking; the historical play Mendelssohn Does Not Live Here Anymore —both part of the world’s largest collection of Holocaust drama; and author of the Anne Frank play, The Girl on the Other Side of the Fence; Board member of Theatre Ariel, the Jewish Theatre of Philadelphia; and writer-director of the YouTube video All About Jewish Theatre: The World’s Largest Secular Synagogue and Open University: www.henrikeger.com
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Visiting Mr. Green, till Sunday, Feb. 14, 2010
Hedgerow Theatre (610) 565-4211
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