By Jim Kates
Carolyn Michel’s Rose is the sociable stranger on the bus who tempts you to miss your stop so you can hear her out to the end.
Rose by Martin Sherman. Directed by Howard Millman. Staged by the Peterborough Players at 55 Hadley Road, Peterborough, NH, through September 15.
When my memory will move out from me, / like somebody moving from one apartment / to another, / what will happen?” asked the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever (translated by Richard Fein). One answer might be Martin Sherman’s Rose, the final production of the season at the Peterborough Players.
Structurally, Rose is stark. An 80-year-old woman sits on a wooden bench in Miami in 1999 and recounts her life. She claims to be sitting shiva — ritually grieving for the dead — but it’s an informal kind of shiva and we don’t learn for whom she’s mourning until the end of the play. That’s it. For the first act, this life is an ethnic and historical cartoon, beginning in a Ukrainian shtetl, moving to Warsaw, surviving the Nazis (this is where the history gets most dubious and cartoonish), frustrated after immigrating to Palestine, then coming to America.
It is disorienting, however, that we have no idea to whom she is addressing these reminiscences. They are just launched out into the audience, rooted in no real relationship. We do not ask so much who Rose is supposed to be, but who we are supposed to be. How are we expected to listen to Rose? (By contrast, I can’t help thinking of the seminal television movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which is grounded in ongoing drama, and which may have been a kind of model for Rose.) Howard Millman’s subtle direction does not resolve this problem.
In the second act, the individual personality of Rose comes forward and adds more than conventional life to her monologue. She takes us through her American life, and her reconnection with Israel. Her experience acquires political and moral point, too — a politics and morality with which I happen to agree; but, again, these are presented in a cartoonish simplicity. (For those who want a more subtle exploration of the thorny issues Rose wrestles with, I recommend Sandy Tolan’s nonfiction book about Palestine and Israel, The Lemon Tree.)
Those who know my prejudices will not be surprised that I am not thrilled by two-act monologues. But this kind of storytelling has become fashionable off the live stage as well as on it. Productions now welcome the contributions of amateurs, and Rose sounds like that. So you can think of the play as like two hours of The Moth Radio Hour featuring a single voice.
And yet. And yet. I had expected to be maundered at and bored. I was not, and all the credit has to go to Carolyn Michel’s understated presentation of the character and her narrative. Both long acts sped by on the wings not of the story, but of her telling of it with a wry smile in a slightly flattened personal accent. Her 80-year-old narrator, claiming to be old, is no such thing. May she live to a hundred! (And we suspect she will.) So Michel’s Rose does not come across like that elderly relative at the dinner table whose only conversation is the rehearsal of the memorable points of her life as it slips away. Instead, she is rather the sociable stranger on the bus who tempts you to miss your stop so you can hear her out to the end.
“A rainfall of blessing / will grow from it, / will grow and fall on you, in you,” Sutzkever answered himself. Which is a fair valediction to the Peterborough Players in 2019.
Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Paper-thin Skin (Zephyr Press), a translation of the Kazakhstani poet Aigerim Tazhi.