In the case of Martin Sherman’s new play Rose, Gertrude Stein’s oft-repeated phrase “A rose is a rose is a rose” is patently untrue. The character of Rose, as played by Olympia Dukakis in this flamboyantly static one-person show, is a woman who embodies within her lifetime the hue and cry of the century just past. We meet this 80-year old survivor as she’s sitting shiva on a bench. She doesn’t physically rise from that bench until the play is over, but emotions sweep across the stage and over the audience with the tidal wave of her testimony. Her life story is bracketed by the story of a young girl’s shocking murder; both tales define our time and challenge our humanity.
Rose is a Jew, born in the Ukraine. In the course of her eight decades she has survived the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis, sailed on the Exodus to Palestine, thrived in Atlantic City (and, later, Miami Beach), and outlived her husbands, grieving for what was lost and for what might never be learned. Rose is not a creator of history, she is the result of history, an example of the debris of humankind that floats on history’s roiling surface. Rose was compelled to make life-making (or breaking) decisions based on the appeal of a man’s hairless chest, a man begging her to jump off a train, a gunshot she did not see. These and other moments were the turning points of her life; they form the crux of Rose’s narrative.
Sherman is no stranger to the Holocaust and its victims. But, in Rose, the author of Bent takes a broader view of the central horror of the 20th century. In fact, he is so intent upon creating a larger canvas here that he virtually skips over the concentration camps, content to make his points about loss and despair with just a few sharply described moments of the Warsaw uprising. Then the war is over and Rose–like so many others–attempts to put her life back together. In the process, Sherman gives us a heroic tragedy of heartbreaking simplicity. The heroism comes from a life fully led, filled with love, fear, sacrifice, sadness, rueful errors, headstrong choices, and principled decisions.
In the person of Olympia Dukakis, Rose comes to vivid life. Despite the physical constraints placed upon her by the script and Nancy Meckler’s tight direction, Dukakis gives a richly detailed performance. In the relative intimacy of the Lyceum Theatre, she blazes with an undeniable intensity. When she raises her arm, her hand giving us the vaguest insinuation of a pistol, the effect is shattering. When she stares at the audience with grief lining her face, you almost have to turn away in shame. And when she tells us the darkly comic events of her life, her eyes sparkle like black diamonds. But she never gets up.
Some will understandably complain that this lack of movement has a deadening effect upon the play. That’s only true if you don’t give yourself over to Rose’s drama. Again, she is sitting shiva, the Jewish way of grieving for the beloved dead, so it’s thematically imperative that she remain seated throughout the performance. Nor does Dukakis pretend to be a child, a young woman, or any other version of herself (or other people she’s met) in the course of the play. She is always the 80-year-old Rose, telling us her story.
There is a sameness in this approach; but rather than creating a forced theatricality by having Dukakis morph into other characters, Rose–and the play named after her–retain their integrity. In the end, the play asks us to retain ours, as well.