TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — On stage, Israeli actor Shlomo Vishinsky plays Valuto, a destitute, wisecracking Neapolitan con man who rents out a senile, wheelchair-bound man to an even less scrupulous friend. The scheme: to evoke pity and charity from the wealthy.
"Buon giorno, Grandpa has arrived," proclaims the 37-year veteran of the respected Israeli theater company, the Cameri, as he enters stage left wheeling his victim.
Until recently, Mr. Vishinsky's mere appearance in the hit comedy "Caviar and Beans" evoked cackles of laughter. But lately, his entrance on stage has provoked sadness as well. Last month, Vishinsky became Israel's best-known bereaved parent of a soldier. His 20-year-old son, Lior, who detonated weapons-smuggling tunnels as part of his mandatory military service, was blown apart in an armored personnel carrier during an ambush by Palestinian fighters in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip.
Vishinsky observed the traditional one-week mourning period - then shaved his stubble, a sign of bereavement, and headed back to the comic stage. "The audience pays money and they deserve the best show possible," he says. But, he adds, "people usually used to laugh more at me; now they are sighing, and I am hearing that sigh."
Offstage, he is now devoting his energies to getting Israel out of the coastal enclave, calling for a withdrawal in interviews and appearances so that, he says, other Israeli families can be spared the loss of their sons and the Palestinians can also be spared suffering and death.
"I've got a meeting with [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and I will support him to help him withdraw the troops from Gaza," says Vishinsky as he sits in his Tel Aviv apartment, near a picture of a smiling Lior framed by the Sea of Galilee.
In Israel's tightly knit society, soldiers' deaths are acutely felt. It was mounting casualties that eventually led Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation. At the time, mothers of those in the military worked to help galvanize public opinion in favor of an Israeli withdrawal. What makes Vishinsky stand out - and attractive to Sharon - is his celebrity.
But it is the eerie blend of his theatrical and real life that has turned him into such a moving figure.
In "The Sky is the Limit," a political satire which opened Sunday, Vishinsky plays the late Israeli premier Golda Meir, who speaks to Sharon from heaven and urges him to make a peace deal with the Palestinians. "Since it takes place in heaven, I think that maybe I will meet Lior there," Vishinsky says.
"In the play, Golda supports the road map" he continues, referring to the international peace blueprint whose provisions have been largely ignored by both Israel and the Palestinians. "And Arik Sharon tells me all kinds of reasons why Arafat is not a relevant negotiating partner. I try to convince him by telling him that it is tough to be a Jew, but that the hardest thing is to be an elderly Jewish woman."
"I tell him that after the age of 70, if you have not lost your husband, son, or brothers in war, the chances are great that you will have to bury your grandchildren," Vishinsky continues, summing up Meier's lines in the play. "I say that I even know people who have lost their great-grandchildren."
His real-life outlook is similar. "My view is that we are not pursuing peace enough," he says. "Even if the Arabs hang up the phone on you, you have to call them up again."
To the army officers who have been calling him from Gaza to express condolences, Vishinsky responds by inviting them and their wives to the theater.
He adamantly refuses to play along in making Lior into anything resembling a martyr or larger-than-life figure.
"We are revelers, people who like to have a good time," he says. "There was not a ,pub in Tel Aviv that Lior did not know. He liked movies. He played tennis, soccer, he liked to ride motorcycles."
"He was not Joseph Trumpeldor," he says referring to a revered symbol of Zionist pioneering and armed prowess, who died in combat in 1920. According to what Israeli schoolchildren are taught, Trumpeldor's last words after being mortally wounded were 'Never mind, it is good to die for our country.'
"Lior told me he wanted to be in a profession where he could make money," Vishinsky says. "If I could set him up in a good business in America, he would go over there."
In a contradiction not uncommon among Israeli soldiers, Lior was a dove who nevertheless served in a combat unit in the occupied territories. "I once asked him, 'we are left-wingers, why are you in combat?' " Vishinsky says. "His answer was that the army belongs to all of us, and that it shouldn't be left only to rightists. He said, when I am posted at the checkpoint, I will behave in a humane way."
"He went to all my plays and I feared his criticism more than anyone else's," Vishinsky adds.
Just hours before Lior was killed, Vishinsky bought a new motorcycle for him. "He was really happy. He said, 'I'll come pick it up on Monday.' He told me 'Dad, this is going to strangle you financially.' but I told him don't worry."
"We are people who love life," repeats Vishinsky. "I wanted him to live. I did not want him to die for nonsense. But he has already been killed."