Bailiwick Repertory at the Theatre Building

“What good does remembering do?” asks an elderly Holocaust survivor in Leslea Newman’s deceptively simple A Letter to Harvey Milk.

Seventy-seven-year-old Harry Weinberg, a San Francisco widower, takes a creative writing course for the elderly (“to pass the time”) and finds himself confronting, in unexpected places, the past that he is so keen to bury. Given the assignment to write a letter to someone from his past, he rejects the notion of writing to loved ones who died in the camps or even to his wife and instead writes to Harvey Milk, the San Francisco supervisor slain in 1978. “You had to go get yourself killed for being a feygele?” Harry writes in his journal, mourning for the mensch who used to visit his kosher butcher store regularly.

It’s always dangerous to draw parallels between the suffering of one persecuted faction of humanity and another. How can suffering be measured or qualified? Luckily, this story does not attempt to make comparisons. It simply finds a common ground where the two cultures of Judaism and homosexuality can meet and recognize each other. Barbara, the writing instructor with whom Harry strikes up a rapport, is Jewish and a lesbian and determined to reconcile these two things. Although her family rejects her for being gay, she is anxious to explore the past of her people. Harry discourages her. “In the old country,” he says, “I saw things you shouldn’t know from.” From his lips it is both a benediction and a warning.

Ruth Carter’s adaptation, directed by Scott Ferguson for Bailiwick’s Pride Performance Series, brings this short story to the stage in a pure, uncluttered fashion. Just under one hour, it slips smoothly from past to present and back again and segues effortlessly between Harry’s journal and Barbara’s thoughts about it. Two performers (one of them in multiple roles) and Harry Weinberg’s pragmatic poetry are enough to keep our attention and even sweep us off our feet.

The excellent, reliable Harry Althaus plays Weinberg without benefit of makeup, props, or any other theatrical frills to indicate old age. Instead he uses the slant of his back and a reservedly fussy manner. With his distaste for anything that might bring up old ugliness, Harry perfectly personifies the reticence of many Holocaust survivors. Althaus is supported by a solid performance from Carter, who easily makes the transition from scrappy writing instructor to Harry’s wife to Harvey Milk himself, who glibly predicts his own demise to a concerned Harry. Especially effective in its simplicity is her depiction of a fellow labor camp survivor who reminds Harry of a time when the pink triangle, now a sign of pride in the gay community, was a deadly symbol to those who wore it.