‘Rose’ Takes Us to Miami and Israel at the Barclay

The one-woman play begins as Rose (Olympia Dukakis) painfully remembers when her daughter Esther ran out of line to get some soup and was shot in the forehead by a soldier. She was nine.
All Olympia Dukakis needs to take you to a Warsaw ghetto, Atlantic City and Israel is a wooden bench, soft yellow stage light and a water bottle.
‘Rose,’ a one-woman play by Martin Sherman, was masterfully performed by Dukakis at the Barclay Theatre on Friday, Jan. 26 and Saturday, Jan. 27.
Dukakis plays Rose, a twice-widowed octogenarian who grew up in a Ukrainian shtetl, a small Jewish community in Eastern Europe, and was eventually forced into the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis. Rose leads the audience through a life in which she has always felt like an outsider.
Her story, inspired by Sherman’s grandmother, is poignant and stirring.
‘How many times I said, ‘Take me now,” Rose mused. ‘God is like a policeman. He’s never there when you need him.’
Told through a personal lens, Sherman presents an engaging history of European Jews and their struggles throughout the 20th century without making the night feel like a history lesson. Perhaps most crucially, Rose’s intermission-less tale was lightened with Jewish humor and sarcasm that could be appreciated by Jews and non-Jews alike. Without the humor, the play would have been too emotionally draining.
To effectively perform a 90-minute, one-woman play without a break is extremely admirable. Yet Dukakis’ performance could have benefited from fewer glances to her script as each one reinforced the impression that we were not with Rose as she told her life story but with Dukakis playing Rose at the Barclay Theatre.
With a thick accent, Rose mixed common, sweet stories of childhood with the realities of growing up in a pre-World War II Ukraine.
‘If you have your first period and pogrom in the same month, you can reasonably assume childhood is over,’ Rose said to her receptive audience.
When Rose reaches the Warsaw Ghetto in her story, we finally understand who Esther is and why, for Rose, ‘God died in the ghetto.’ The soup for which Esther died, Rose tells us, was mostly water anyway.
While telling us about Esther and the Nazi soldier, Rose suddenly has trouble breathing and must stop to get some water. Throughout the 90-minute life story, various troubling and climactic moments lead Rose to this state. A brilliant pacing technique, the breathing breaks up the action and gives Dukakis well-deserved moments to drink some water.
Rose escapes from the ghetto and meets her future second husband Sunny Rose, an American crewman on the ship taking her and other survivors away from Europe. After settling in Atlantic City for a few years with her American husband and legally becoming ‘Rose Rose,’ she becomes comically obsessed with bringing back the memory of her supposedly dead Russian husband by embodying his spirit.
First Rose tries to bring him back using a spell, which involves her American husband’s semen and a chicken leg. Inexplicably, this turns her living husband on. Rose then undergoes a transformation, trying to be more masculine like her Russian husband. Rose’s resulting character transformation actually makes her more popular.
After Rose moves to Miami to run a hotel named after her, ‘Rose’ became a bit slow. No life story will be fascinating 100 percent of the time, and a few additional minutes could have been edited from the play.
Still, the Miami bits were more than worth listening to if only for the stunning encounter Rose has in a trip to Arizona. At a gas station, she sees a man with a glass eye just like her first husband. Stunned, Rose realizes he hadn’t died in the ghetto after all.
As Rose nears the end of her tale, the memory of Esther is evoked by her fully-grown American-born son Abner, who shoots a protesting nine-year-old named Nora in the forehead. The debate Abner has with Rose (told by Rose, of course) is dramatic and introduces a modern dialogue about what Israel means and should mean to Jews around the world.
The conversation reinforces Dukakis’ excellent portrayal of Rose, a warm-hearted and passionate woman who is a paragon of persistence and acceptance.
Rating: 4/5