The Pioneer Press Reviews Rose

'Rose' review: Script struggles, but actress close to flawless

By Dominic P. Papatola
Special to the Pioneer Press

As a script, "Rose" suffers from its share of faults -- a tendency to meander, moments of melodrama and a heavy reliance on thematic improbabilities and conveniences. But as a performance, the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's production starring Sally Wingert is pretty close to flawless.

Martin Sherman's 1999 script presents the audience with the title and sole character, an 80-year-old Jewish women sitting shiva for a 9-year-old girl who died a violent death. Precisely how and why Rose came to observe the mourning ritual for this particular girl is the nominal excuse for the play; but the real raison d'être is to give Rose the chance to tell the story of her life.

From a humble shtetl in Ukraine, Rose experienced both the bohemian life and the World War II ghettos of Warsaw.

Though she escaped the concentration camps, Rose found herself in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the war and onboard the steamer Exodus on its historic journey to Palestine. She married an American (one of three husbands and at least one lover), schlepped beach chairs on Atlantic City's boardwalk, endured McCarthyism, owned a hotel in Miami Beach and watched as her children and grandchildren helped build the infant state of Israel.

Sherman, the playwright, probably intends his title character to be sort of Everyman of the World War II era Jewry, but Rose appears in so many iconic moments of her people's history that she sometimes reads more like a Jewish Forrest Gump. Too, Sherman too often applies a sledgehammer in his prose when a less blunt instrument might suffice: Early in the play, for instance, Rose opines that "if you have your first period and your first pogrom within the same month, you can safely assume childhood is over."

Whatever flaws are inherent in the script, though, are more than mitigated by Wingert's luminous performance. Clad in black slacks and sweater with a mutely patterned blouse, Wingert's Rose sports big round spectacles that make her eyes look owlish and pulls her hair back into a tight bun, giving her a severe mien. She paints the character with a palette that includes warmth and feistiness, resignation and fragility, humor, anger, lust and a steel-spined something that resides between courage and pragmatism.

Joy isn't a state that enters Rose's life -- when she describes the physical feeling of her own laughter, you initially think she's talking about throwing up -- but by the time she finishes her uncompromising and unstinting tale, you can't help but feel the richness of her character's experience.

Minnesota Jewish Theatre's production, under the steady and unornamented direction of Hayley Finn, is staged in private homes (the Sunday performance I attended took place in a Richfield living room into which were crowded two dozen folks). Because Wingert is seated for the entire two hours of the play, there's nowhere for the performer to hide. Nor is there any need for concealment: Though the script sometimes struggles, the performance of it transfixes.