An Ordinary Play That Triggers Extraordinary Thoughts

It's not a classic or a masterpiece, but 'A Medal for Harry,' about late love and other illusions, makes one critic think twice.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

The instances in which I return to the scene of the crime - in other words, write a second, and usually longer, article about a performance that I have already covered in brief - are usually when I think it is a cultural event, one "worthy" of having more words dedicated to it. Examples might include contending with a classic play or with a new play from one of our important playwrights, or when I wish to change or make conditional - in some fashion or another - the opinion I expressed in my earlier piece.

When it is of the second type - the "wisdom of the steps" of remembering things you should have said to your host after the door has already closed behind you - the more frequent change, at least from my experience, is from the negative to the positive. It has happened to me, regrettably more than once, that a play which, at first glance, I thought was nothing special, looked very different on second thought. If I can claim something to my credit in the heavenly court of theater critics who have passed on, it would be my willingness to change my initial negative opinion, when I reach the conclusion that I made a mistake. On the other hand, if my initial passion for a play that I praised excessively and over-quickly cools off, I generally avoid correcting my opinion in writing. It seems that there is less damage done by out-of-place praise than by unjustified criticism.

I am prefacing myself with such meta-critical ponderings to justify my decision to return and write about the play "A Medal for Harry," presented at Beit Lessin Theater. The play, written by American actor and writer Peter Mark Richman and titled A Medal for Murray in the original English, is directed by Alon Ophir. It is not a cultural event of special importance, maybe even the opposite. It is plain, old routine entertainment; a performance in the best sense of the word. One which grants the audience an hour-and-a-half of interest, good feelings and even a sort of spiritual lift. Nothing to write home about - or twice in the newspaper.

I return to this play, not because I changed my mind about it, for good or for bad. First of all, because my initial opinion of it was positive, even very positive: What can you not love about a play in which two old people in a retirement home (a place that, in our imagination, no matter what age we are and even if they hide the character of the place with worn-out phrases such as "golden age," is the final, short and tormenting interregnum before death) find love and a new taste for life, especially when they are played with never-ending and bottomless grace and vigor by Miriam Zohar and Ilan Dar?

I praised the performance and its actors in a short review after the opening and I don't retract a thing. But I have continued to think about it since opening night, struggling inside myself with the pleasant memory of it and with the desire to accept the world view it paints, and with the feeling that the reality we live in - which the reality on the stage is based on, even if the plot of the play is set in the United Sates and not in Israel - is very different. In other words, I feel a bit like the child who repeats the last words of the fairy tale that was just read to him, which finished with a happy ending and the sentence "they lived happily ever after," while suspecting that it happens only in fairy tales and reality is much more depressing.

The feeling is that the play, and the performance in its wake, is woven from a false and prettified view of the happiness and love that it is most probably possible to find in old age. It is connected to the manipulation that the theater and cinema exert on their audiences in the type of content known as "realistic" - or real characters, whether in comedy or in drama; as if to enable holding the audience in the hall for a time, you must complicate the plot. These complications can be funny or cause suspense and fear for the fate of the characters. And everything depends on the finish, whose emotional value has changed over the years. In what we call "escapist" theater or cinema (to which we flee from the depression of reality,) the happy ending of the story may be comforting and soothing, but in the same way is also says "a happy ending such as this one, which sometimes seems to be artificial and forced, can happen only in stories, since it is made up and the conventions require the happy ending." The audience is allowed to be captivated by the illusion, after all they will need to sober up when the performance ends.

The character played by Miriam Zohar is a woman whose essence of life was to cling to the memory of her husband and daughter, who died quite a long time ago, and to complain about her son who put her in the old age home and comes to visit her once a month - and then only for five minutes. In the play, she meets the character played by Ilan Dar. He is also a widower, but, in contrast to her, he is less dependent on his memories and family. The main thing is: He has money. Enough money to take her out on trips in a limousine and to take her on a cruise. True, money cannot buy youth, health or happiness, but it certainly can make the despair much more pleasant.

There are two stories in the play: One is the story of the old woman and the possibility that love - and money - can make her happy, even against all odds. The second story is that of Harry (or Murray in the original English), her forty-something son. As long as his mother was a grumbling old lady in a retirement home, she may have seemed to be a nuisance for him, but she was also an excuse why his life just could not get started. The audience can see how she abuses him and tramples his self-confidence. According to the plot, it is actually when she receives a new lease on life with her rich suitor and seemingly "gets off his back," that he finds it hard to accept it. He revolts - and is trampled by her once again. On the surface - and also according to the program notes - the fact that the elderly mother finds meaning in her life allows her to release her son from his burden, which gives him the chance for a new and independent life with his girlfriend, who shares an apartment with him and expects them to get married. In reality, the play's plot sacrifices the story of the son in order to weave the illusion of the possibility of a happy old woman in love.

In the first scene of the play, the mother takes pride that her son received a medal from the mayor. The nurse taking care of her in the old-age home - played by Aviv Nagosa - asks what her son received the medal for. The mother doesn't understand the question. In her mind, it doesn't matter what the medal is for. What is important is it comes from the mayor. Later in the scene, when her son - Dov Navon, who has the amazing ability to be a bundle of nerves ready to explode, and does time after time in an incredibly funny fashion - comes to visit his mother, we discover what he won the medal for: For the 15 years in which he served as the weatherman of the community television station in the city where his mother lives. What she sees as the greatest of his achievements seems to him to be the very embodiment of failure: His daily, routine life with the weather forecast, something that, as we all know, everyone talks about but no one can do anything about.

Harry wanted all his life to be a standup comic. His mother explained to him, time after time, that he wasn't funny. Now he is a weatherman at a television station in Florida and tries to present the forecast with jokes and songs, and they even let him do it - and finally he tries to take off. His mother insists on trimming his wings, and then she finds love and frees him from her burdensome yoke, only to half-abandon, half-deposit him - with the aid of the playwright - into the bosom of the woman who claims she loves him - the energetic and delightful Anat Magen-Shvo - but who brutally tramples his self-esteem, exactly like his mother did before her. So Harry has been freed from the yoke of his mother, though not before she callously forces him to apologize in front of her suitor, but he takes on the no-less-heavy yoke in the form of the woman who already tells him how to behave - if he wants any medal at all.

All these are the thoughts of a spectator who very much enjoyed the performance, the text of the play, the direction of Ilan Ophir, the scenery (mostly in the second part, which takes place in a room in Florida and especially because of the demonstrativeness  with which the fabric, on which is painted the blue sky beyond the huge windows, is spread before the audience's eyes) and from the acting of the veterans whose strength still lasts, and the younger actors who serve their story and theater with grace.

And what is interesting is that these thoughts - on the life of the characters after the play ends - arise very rarely when we are dealing with a classic play or masterpiece: With those plays, there is room to talk about interpretation, tradition, and influences. Sometimes what is called "entertainment" - or a plain movie on the face of it with a routine story - allows us to actually ponder over the complex relationships between reality as we know it and the way it is drawn before our eyes on the stage.

Miriam Zohar and Ilan Dror in 'A Medal for Harry.'Credit: Kfir Boloton

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