Rose Colored Glass would make a charming one-act but falls short as a full-length play

Rose Fleishman, a Jewish refugee from Austria, runs a delicatessen in Chicago, and right across the alley is a pub owned by Lady O'Riley, a dour Irish widow. Rose sells gefilte fish, Lady salmon loaf. Separated by centuries of history, culture and religion, the two women are coldly formal toward each other, but Lady's irrepressible granddaughter Peg won't have it. She's forever shuttling between the eateries, chatting, asking questions, thinking up stratagems — and slowly, reluctantly, the women begin speaking to each other. The relationship deepens as Lady learns more about Rose's predicament. It's 1938, and through the increasingly unreliable news channels from Europe, Rose finds out that her sister Sabena has disappeared from Vienna and is either dead or in hiding, and that her eleven-year-old nephew, Abraham, has fled to England — still far too close to the reach of Nazi bombs. She and Lady join forces to bring the child to America.

Rose Colored Glass is a gentle, nostalgic piece that would make a charming essay, short story or one-act, but there's not enough action to animate a full-length play. We in the audience know — even though Rose doesn't — that Abraham will be safe in England and, with his life not seriously at issue, this becomes primarily an account of an unlikely friendship. The tone is far-reaching and humanistic, and important ideas are aired: humankind's provincialism, for example, and the way we tend to ignore far-away tragedies unless there's a specific story and name attached to them, and also the universal concerns and characteristics that unite us all. To their credit, playwrights Susan Bigelow and Janice Goldberg remind us more than once that Abraham is only one of thousands of Jewish children in mortal danger, and there are also salutary reminders of America's shameful reluctance to take in Jewish refugees during World War II, the bureaucracy and anti-semitism that saw thousands of professionals, workers and people with prosperous relatives in the United States turned away on the grounds that they might become a public burden. (Anyone who likes to think this kind of callousness is safely in the past might want to contemplate the Central Americans sent home to their probable deaths by our own Governor Richard Lamm in the 1980s, and the xenophobic, anti-immigrant tone that still infests political debate.)

The play does a good job of re-creating the war as seen from the United States. The set, by Richard Pegg, is a meticulous reconstruction. Along with the characters, we attempt to tease out the words from a radio's crackling static and contemplate the huge importance of papers, birth certificates, visas — pieces of paper that can mean the difference between life and death. But the script is fairly static: scenes stitched together by monologues in which an adult Peg looks back. Some of them are interesting, but by the third time Peg explains that Rose and Lady are busy organizing, researching and writing letters, you can't help wishing she'd just summarize. And the playwrights' attempt to find parallels between Lady's family problems and Rose's quandary feels strained and unnecessary. The characters aren't highly differentiated, and much of the dialogue is generic. Were Sabena and Rose close? Did they fight? Was one the pretty child and the other the dutiful? Isn't it just a bit too pat and easy to name a Jewish kid Abraham and an Irishman Paddy? And why, when Peg fantasizes about playing with her new friend from Europe, does the topic have to be baseball? Has this girl no originality?

All three performances are workable, but they don't add enough depth and specificity to make up for the script's deficiencies. Billie McBride is convincing as a tough, feisty Irishwoman; Paige Larson gives a smooth performance as Rose; and Alaina Reel's Peg is bright and lively — though more a generic, high-voiced child than a real human being. But all three could have thought and felt their way more deeply into their roles. The accents kept sliding all over the place, with Rose sometimes sounding more Irish than Lady. It really wouldn't be that hard to figure out how to roll out a strudel, as Rose is required to do. And I had a hard time imagining an observant Jew casually fingering fresh-made pork sausages; if Rose did such a thing, it would surely be a focused, deliberate and curiosity-driven act.

 
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