‘Rose’: a flower among the thorns

Benedict Nightingale, reviewing the new London theater season for the New York Times in 1999, put his finger on the big trouble with Rose, Martin Sherman’s one-woman play about an 80-year old Holocaust survivor sitting on a park bench in Miami and remembering the high and low points of her extraordinary life.

Wendy Westerwelle stars in "Rose"“Rose’s life sometimes seems too exemplary to be true,” Nightingale writes. “Add some convenient coincidences to her tale — like meeting a bitter old shopkeeper in the Arizona desert and realizing he is the spouse she thought she had lost to Dachau — and Rose could easily be a case study rather than a character.”

But Nightingale also saw beyond Sherman’s desire to embrace the entirety of the post-Holocaust Jewish dilemma in a single overstuffed play, instead championing the drama’s extraordinary heart and the quietly stunning performance of its star, Olympia Dukakis — “the permafrost beneath the surface, the Siberia in her soul.”

He praised Rose for its “always lively, often distressing, sometimes hauntingly strange observation,” and concluded: “If you think that sedentary bravura is a contradiction in terms, this should change your mind.”

England liked Rose. It was nominated for the Olivier Award for best new play, and moved in 2000 to New York, again with Dukakis, where its reception was chillier. Bruce Weber, also writing in the New York Times, reacted like this: “(H)er story resonates on the tired frequency of a lecture about the wages of forgetting the past. If you are not of a certain age, you may react to her as a child to a relative who has overtaken one too many family gatherings: Yes, Grandma. Now can we go out and play?”

Then, echoing a theme sounded by several reviewers, he lamented the script’s streaks of jokiness amid the general despair: “Either Mr. Sherman is talking through her, or else in the year it took Rose to become fluent in English, she assimilated a lifetime of Borscht Belt humor.”

Well, maybe. But then, Rose is 80 years old when she sits shiva on that park bench, and she’s lived in America for most of her adult life. And Borscht Belt humor doesn’t come just from the Catskills. The Catskills are only a pipeline to older places and older times, where that peculiarly Jewish humor of survivors’ exaggeration was born and nourished before it immigrated to summer camps on American lakes. So Rose couldn’t be a little funny? So she shouldn’t be a little funny? Jews have been laughing about the unlaughable for a long, long time. It’s one way you get through.

About that other point, the “wages of forgetting the past”: Rose and Sherman are guilty as charged. Except, you should pardon the expression, I’m not sure why that’s something to feel guilty about. We do forget the past. Forgetting is disastrous. One can remind without being a nag. Even then, in the orbit of Jewish comedy, the old nag, the busybody, the yenta, is a stock character. You hear, you nod, you shrug, you laugh. Rose is not exactly a yenta and not exactly a nag: her complaints are visceral and rooted in real horrors, not imagined or exaggerated slights. And Rose is not a tale of elegant construction and beautiful words, like Jerzy Kosinsky‘s (or whoever actually wrote it) The Painted Bird. So be it. Rose is not an elegant woman. But she’s memorable.

All of which is an extremely long way around to pointing out that Triangle Productions‘ Portland version of Rose, featuring Wendy Westerwelle and directed by Don Horn, is nearing the end of its run (final performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at CoHo Theater) and well worth your time. No, it’s not a perfect play. But it’s an intense, intelligent, funny and deeply moving play, and Westerwelle inhabits it with remarkable restrained passion.

Before the show opened I talked with Westerwelle about it and then wrote about our conversation here. It was obvious she’d made an enormous commitment to the role, and it shows on stage. She delivers a terrific performance, technically smart and emotionally vivid and precise.

I suspect her performance is very different from Dukakis’s: This Rose is not a permafrosted soul. People who know Westerwelle from past performances as varied as her Sophie Ticker show Soph: A Visit With the Last of the Red Hot Mamas and the old Storefront Burlesques know her as an extrovert, an outsized personality, an ambassador of the broad gesture. In Rose, she doesn’t reject that so much as she channels it to the sobering realities of the life of a woman who endured and survived some of the worst atrocities the 20th century threw at the world.

From a Ukrainian shtetl to the Warsaw pogroms to the postwar detention camps to her almost magical-realist transformation to freedom and eventual wealth in the United States, Rose relates the story of a woman bobbing on the waves of vast historical movements, trying to find ground. Her losses and occasional gains are intensely personal, and that is part of Sherman’s point, which Westerwelle and Horn so ably bring home: Great cultural tragedies are intense private tragedies, too. Small, common lives are ripped apart, and in the process, become uncommon. Yes, Rose is a survivor, with the guilt and the scars that go with it. And, yes, she leavens the horrors she relates with some wry jokes. Wouldn’t you?

So, I forgive the play its sometimes awkward leaps, its desperation to tell everything, its occasional ungainly coincidence. Those are small potatoes compared to what it achieves. Rose speaks truth about history, and hope about surviving it, and looks forward as well as back: It carries Rose’s story into the ongoing tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lamenting that victims have also become victimizers. That final chapter is bound to anger a few people in the audience. But from Rose’s (and, presumably, Sherman’s) perspective it resounds with emotional and spiritual truth. Enough with the slaughter. Time for life.


“Looks like you’re the only goy who stayed for the talkback,” a friend commented after the post-show discussion on the afternoon I saw the play. Her comment surprised me: I hadn’t thought of it in those terms at all. I had noticed that I was one of only a few men in the audience, but only because a couple of women in front of me were joking about it as we walked from the lobby into the theater. Jew, goy — yes, it’s a Jewish story, but it’s a story for and about all of us. History has a way of drawing us together as well as pushing us apart.

In addition to Westerwelle and Horn, the post-show talk included Eva and Les Aigner, both Jewish and both Holocaust survivors. Their stories were simple and profound: stories of luck, stories of delivery. Stories of what these days we call post-traumatic stress. Les told of his 15 years of nightmares, of the job he held for decades in Oregon without ever telling anyone about his background. They told about how having each other made things easier, and how having children gave them a future. And Eva revealed why they finally decided it was time to start telling people their stories. It was when the Holocaust denial movement started gathering steam, she said. It just made them angry. How could anyone say it hadn’t happened? They were there. So they began to speak.

Sometimes, theater really is about life.


ILLUSTRATION: Wendy Westerwelle as Rose. Photo by Mark Larsen.