The Star Tribune Reviews Rose

Sally Wingert's tough and tender 'Rose'

In the fall, veteran actor Sally Wingert will star in “Master Class” at Theatre Latte Da, a production that promises to showcase her talent. But why wait to see the prodigious gifts of one of the Twin Cities area’s most accomplished actors?

You can see her now in Martin Sherman’s one-woman play “Rose,” which kicked off the 20th anniversary season of the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company last weekend. Wingert plays an 80-year-old Jewish grandmother with a powerful story to tell in this drama, being staged in the intimate setting of private homes throughout the Twin Cities area.

The production is enthralling, even though it is a minimalist work. The title character sits on a bench for the duration of the show. With words alone, some weary, all emotion-laden, Rose moves our souls, channeling injustice and chaos, love and light.

Directed with subtlety and intelligence by Hayley Finn, the production begins in the present as people mill about the room, finally compelled to silence by the rictus of grief on Rose’s face. Then she begins to talk about a little girl shot to death. What follows over the next two hours is a spellbinding chronicle of her life.

She tells us about her childhood in a Ukrainian shtetl, where her fruit-selling family endures pogroms by the Cossacks. She moves to Warsaw just before the Nazis arrive. She survives the Holocaust, briefly visits the promised Zion that is Palestine and ends up in America.

In between, there are marriages and children and wry reflections on her tumultuous life.

The narrative is as much about an individual’s well-crafted story as it is about larger history. And that is partly the point of “Rose,” which cleverly mixes time frames. The show seems to be impelled by a need to share history lest it be forgotten or, worse, repeated.

The show premiered in 1999 in London, starring Olympia Dukakis, who reprised the role a year later on Broadway. MJTC produced “Rose” a decade ago, but this is Wingert’s first time in the role (although this is her fourth solo show with MJTC).

Wingert makes “Rose” a study in theatrical power. Barefoot and with just a few props, she occasionally waves her arms and gestures with her head. Mostly, though, she talks, in a virtuoso vocal performance that ranges from moments of quiet to flashes of passion. Even her soft words can be lacerating.

One of the most poignant scenes comes late in Rose’s life. Rose, we learn early, is a lover of westerns. After all the horrors of her life, she desires to see tumbleweeds and cowboys in the desert. She visits Arizona, but what she finds is not a token of the escapist films that helped her survive but instead an encounter that reawakens pain. Wingert’s delivery is curt. She turns away, vocally and physically, trying to leave behind a history that will not leave her.

Often, simply being moved by a production is enough for it to be considered a success. But “Rose” has bigger ripples.

The show offers powerful testimony from a history of horrors that may not be as far removed as we’d like to think. • 612-673-4390