Fragile Remembrance of Things Past: Rose at The Schoolhouse Theater

David Begelman

Rose is a single-character drama about an 80 year-old holocaust survivor who is sitting shivah (the Jewish mourning ritual) on a wooden bench in her Miami Beach apartment. The play was first produced at the Cottesloe Theatre, London, in 1999, and was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2000.

Rose is seen lighting a memorial candle as the curtain goes up, after which she drags herself to her bench. She never rises from it for the duration of the two-act monologue. Addressing the audience as through a fourth wall, she reviews her history as a young Jew experiencing Cossack pogroms in her Ukrainian shtetl, Yultishka, Nazi persecution in her Warsaw ghetto, the extermination of family members, and being turned back to Germany by the British who intercept the ship Exodus after its refugees, Rose among them, had savored their first glimpse of freedom in America. Her tale is more than anyone’s fair share of anguish.    

Playwright Martin Sherman, author of the popular vehicle, Bent (about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals), not to mention other memorable works like Crack, Messiah, and The Boy From OZ, has a surprise in store for us right off the bat. It concerns the person for whom Rose is mourning. She is a Palestinian victim, a young girl felled by an Israeli bullet, just as her own daughter received one decades before at the hands of the Nazis.

As it turns out, Rose delivers more than merely a litany of personal tragedies. She offers a stunningly fresh moral perspective on life—one that she owns as an aspect of another kind of suffering: the death of an Arab girl slain by military forces on her side of a historical struggle. She is told by her militant Israeli son Abner that her lamentation is misplaced, because the newer struggle is one in which the future requires dismissing such collateral damage. But Rose’s history is one that calls for quite another kind of morality. And she is all the more impressive because of it.

Rose is actually a drama divided, seemingly against itself. Its First Act details a recitation of Rose’s European nightmare; one so wrenching that the Second Act, walking us as it does through her emigration to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and thence to a Connecticut commune and subsequent ownership of a hotel in Florida, seems to offer some comic relief from the anguished narrative that preceded it.

Although Rose’s past is burned into her soul, she often consoles herself with the possibility she may have a faulty memory, one that may be deceiving her about reality. On the one hand, she quips that, “God is just like a policeman; he’s never around when you need him!” while on the other, she tries “to shut out the reality of the screaming in the ghetto,” wondering whether hurling potatoes at Prime Minister Bevan’s British sailors was a “mirage,” and generally “forgetting events in the middle of recalling them.” For her, were the pogroms she remembers real, or just scenes from Fiddler On The Roof?

The juxtaposition of pain and humor in Rose is not the playwright’s invention. It is an indelible aspect of the Jewish cultural heritage. Rose shows us how very much she clings to the pulse of the tradition: “I suppose if you have your first period and your first pogrom within the same month, you can safely assume that your childhood is over,” or the wistful, “The glory of Judaism has less to do with giving the world Moses and Marx and Jesus, and everything to do with the invention of the phrase ‘On the other hand…’”

Mr. Sherman’s First Act is riveting, however harrowing for an audience to digest. Unlike the Second Act, exposure to it may represent more of a ritual chastening process for audiences in recalling what happened during the middle of the last century. The Second Act, with its allusions to marijuana, male hairless chests, hippie communes, zany sexual scenarios and latter day agnosticism may offer avenues of relief for what went before. They doubtlessly offer more sheer entertainment value than does Act One.

Annie McGreevey as Rose gave a role with a near impossible challenge for memory her best shot. Much of her characterization rang true, although emotional crescendos and diminuendos were not as marked at crucial points as they might have been. To some extent, the actress was physically hampered by Director Jamie Winnick’s keeping her stationary on her bench for the entire drama—although Ms. Winnick’s decision itself might have been constrained by the demands of the script. If so, the playwright may have erred in imagining that the power of Rose’s narrative would be lessened were she not stuck to her mourning bench. (Sitting shivah does not ordinarily require this kind of fixedness, as do commemorative candles and covered mirrors.)

Ms. McGreevey informed the audience in a talk-back session after one performance that her ethnic accent was acquired by coaching with Amy Stoller. The result was an accomplished one. This is because the actress did not lay the Eastern European dialect on thickly—an intelligent choice. The alternative would have been disastrous, if not shticky.

Ken Larson’s Scenic Design was modest, although not especially suggestive of Rose’s Miami Beach abode, while David Pentz’s Lighting Design, while evidently meant to underscore dramatic moments in Rose’s narrative, often did so with a seemingly tepid emphasis.

Rose opened at The Schoolhouse Theater, 3 Owens Road, Croton Falls, New York, on Octover 15th, and runs till November 1st, 2009. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 914.277.8477 or online at www.schoolhousetheater.org.   

 

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