As Rose opens, an ailing woman in her eighties sits shiva on a public bench. We don't know whose death she is mourning, though she tells us early on that her own daughter was killed by the Nazis at age nine. The character, Rose, then takes us on a tour of twentieth century Jewish history, beginning with her childhood in a Central European shtetl and her memories of the pogroms against the Jews.
Just as I was starting to wonder if I hadn't heard all this before, the script defused my complaint. Sometimes she isn't sure whether she's remembering reality or a scene from Fiddler on the Roof, the woman tells us, laughing.
The history may be familiar, but ultimately, Rose's humor, passion and insight carry the play. Throughout, she wonders what it means to be a Jew. Judaism is a religion based on argument, she comments, and on "asking questions that cannot be answered." In fact, the phrase "on the other hand" is a Jewish gift to the world.
Sun hat and sunglasses laid neatly on the bench, Rose continues her narrative, describing the horrors she experienced in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II, including the loss of her artist husband and the death of her child. Playwright Martin Sherman has said that this material is not based directly on the experiences of his Ukrainian grandparents. Nonetheless, it is an essentially true story, a kind of meta-narrative that echoes innumerable accounts and autobiographies, including the dozens of stories captured on film by Steven Spielberg. Again I found myself wondering if this material required re-exploration. But Deborah Persoff gives a luminous performance as Rose, and Sherman's writing is nuanced. Again I found myself suspending judgment.
Rose's story of persecution doesn't end once the war is over. Through all of her torments, the word "Palestine" has been on her lips, reiterated again and again like an incantation. A promised land. A safe harbor for the Jews. But during the 1940s, England was restricting immigration to what would become Israel. Rose leaves for the Middle East, meets Sonny, a young American Zionist, on the ship, and has time only to kiss Palestinian soil before being herded back to Europe with hundreds of other desperate immigrants.
The play's second act concerns Rose's marriage to Sonny and her adjustment to America. Almost anything would be anti-climactic after the high drama of act one, and sections of this act feel aimless despite the urgent question it asks: How does someone who has seen what Rose has seen adjust to comfortable middle-class life? After attending a production of Ansky's The Dybbuk, Rose becomes obsessed with the idea of summoning the spirit of her dead first husband into her own body. This is a potentially powerful metaphor, but it didn't work for me. Nor did the moment when Rose sees -- or thinks she sees -- this man in an Arizona gas station.
But then Sherman starts pulling the drawstrings of the play gently together. Rose is able to visit Israel. Her son marries a gentile who converts, and the couple goes to live there. In time, the daughter-in-law becomes part of the militant settler movement. Her understanding of Judaism is directly opposed to Rose's. For this girl, being Jewish means ditching Yiddish, that warm, muddled mongrel of a language, in favor of the purity of Hebrew. It means that Rose's brand of gentle, kvetchy, self-deprecating humor is out of date. Even her suffering -- astonishingly -- has lost its meaning. And centuries of Jewish questioning have been replaced by the settlers' stony certainty that Gaza and the West Bank belong to the Jews, even if that requires inflicting suffering on another people. The climax comes when Rose sees a young Palestinian girl murdered by gunfire, just as her own daughter was murdered in Poland.
Under the direction of Everyman Theatre's Richard H. Pegg, Deborah Persoff gives a heartfelt and meticulously detailed performance, rising effortlessly to the script's emotional requirements, but also attending fully to the moments that are quietly mundane.
Rose is sometimes verbose. Sometimes it goes over ground that has been well covered already. In his most famous play, Bent, Sherman introduced an aspect of the Holocaust that had not been previously shown in film or fiction -- the attempted extermination of Europe's homosexuals. Here he's on more conventional and less original ground. But the question posed by Rose is central to contemporary Jewish life and has far-reaching ethical and political implications. It is articulated with urgency and a deep humanity. And both plays wrestle with similar ideas: the struggle to remain human, the search -- even in the midst of absolute horror -- for grace and transcendence.
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