`Rose' tells a powerful story of resiliency and strength

Theater Review

Baltimore Vivat!

February 11, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Early on in Martin Sherman's one-woman play, Rose, the 80-year-old title character tells us she has lived through "some of the most tumultuous events" of the 20th century.

As we learn over the next two hours, those events include pogroms in the Russian village where she was born, confinement in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II, and the ill-fated voyage of the ship Exodus in 1947. After marrying an American sailor she meets on the Exodus, Rose finds refuge in the United States.

She relates her life story while seated on a bench in Miami Beach. As this sedentary staging suggests, Rose is a play in which all of the drama resides in the telling, not in the showing.

That's one reason Everyman Theatre decided it could get away with presenting Sherman's script in a staged reading instead of a fully realized production. Another reason is that Rose was initially announced as part of the theater's 2001-2002 season, then postponed when actress Vivienne Shub suffered a slipped disc.

Now Everyman is offering the reading as the theater's contribution to the city's Vivat! St. Petersburg festival. It's a tenuous connection at best since Rose never sets foot in St. Petersburg; her Russian village is in the Ukraine. But such quibbles aside, it's a pleasure to see an actress who is surely one of Baltimore's living treasures take on this taxing role - even in a reading.

Shub performs with the script in front of her on a music stand, but she rarely consulted it on opening night, and I suspect by the end of the run, she may not consult it at all. And though you might expect the star to move around a bit in a full-fledged staging, Olympia Dukakis never did when she performed the play in London and on Broadway.

There's a solid, dramatic reason why Rose remains on her bench. As she explains in her opening remarks, she is sitting shiva, the Jewish religion's formal seven-day mourning period, during which, among other rituals, mourners sit on a wooden bench. There's an element of mystery surrounding the identity of the person Rose is mourning, and the resolution of that mystery is one of the more shocking elements of her startling story.

But especially as performed by Shub, Rose is far from unremittingly dire. There's a good deal of humor in Sherman's writing and in dainty, white-haired Shub's delivery. For example, speaking of the Cossacks storming her village, she says she can't be sure if she's remembering "the actual event or a scene from the movie Fiddler on the Roof. ... I close my eyes and I see chorus boys."

There's an impishness in Shub's voice and facial features when she speaks lines like these. At other times, her voice becomes tinged with sadness or heated with anger. Her hands are equally expressive. Her right hand gracefully indicates swelling waves when she talks about the Exodus. When memories become too painful, she raises a hand to her face, as if to shield her eyes. And when she recalls a rare moment of beauty, she presses the fingers of one hand together as if to hold the moment a bit longer. It's a lovely, subtly shaded performance.

Although director Vincent M. Lancisi has made some minimal cuts in Sherman's text, the picaresque tale could benefit from a few more, particularly in the more didactic passages near the end, when Rose gets into debates with her offspring in Israel.

For the most part, however, Rose has a fascinating story to tell, one that ranges all the way from the horrors of the Holocaust to the absurdity of a Miss America parade and on to life on a Connecticut commune and eventually the stewardship of a Miami Beach hotel. It's a story of great resilience and strength, and so movingly enacted by Shub that whenever Rose has trouble catching her breath, you just might have trouble catching yours as well.

Rose

When: 7:30 p.m. Sundays-Tuesdays, 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays. Through Feb. 25

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

Admission: $15

Call: 410-752-2208

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