“Rose” Blends History and Autobiography, Tragedy and Humor

“Rose,” a one-woman play by Martin Sherman, is the story of the title character, as she tells it herself, but it is also the story of the Jewish people, the horrors of the Holocaust and its aftermath, settlement in Israel and America, and the sorrows, resilience, and humor of the people.

Presented by Woods Hole Community Theater through Saturday, August 25, “Rose” is performed and directed by Lydia Sargent. The subject matter is sometimes tragic, but Rose also finds love, has a family, and finds success in business. Ultimately, she understands, better than nations and their leaders, the common bonds we share and why we need to find peace.

The play opens with poignant Jewish cello music. Rose is 80, looking back on her life while sitting shiva for an unnamed 9-year-old girl, killed with a bullet to the forehead. She wonders who will mourn her, who will sit shiva for her when she dies, recalling her “brief flirtation with Eastern religions” and envying its concept of reincarnation.

“The Jewish curse,” Rose says, “is that we have no heaven and no hell, and we don’t come back anymore.”

But Rose has packed many lifetimes into her 80 years. She begins with her childhood in Yultiska, a small town “like a pimple on the face of the Ukraine.” A civil war was raging when she was born, and the area was beset by famine by the time she was 2. In her early teens, the Cossacks came, though Rose admitted to confusing the devastating pogrom she lived through with that depicted in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Her Jewish father died in the pogrom, and that, recalls Rose, was the first time she sat shiva. Rose’s mother was Christian, but Rose suspected her of being a pagan. When Rose’s brother married, moved to Warsaw and had a baby, Rose was happy to follow, to help out with the baby.

Soon Rose finds love herself, and she has a child too. But the Nazis soon control Poland, and her dreams are shattered. “I don’t remember the ghetto,” she says, “I don’t want to remember the ghetto.”

She does talk about the ghetto, but not at length; it is too painful—but what she tells us is very vivid. Her words are concise, but say much, as when she comments, simply, that “they used the bodies for fertilizer.”

Rose sits shiva for two weeks, no longer out of a belief in God, she says, but because she needed the ritual.

After the war, she heads for Palestine, on the ill-fated S.S. Exodus, which was forced by the British government to return its would-be emigrants to Europe. She meets an American sailor named Sonny Rose who makes her Rose Rose and takes her back home to Atlantic City. Life is happier for her, but she remains haunted by her past.

The monologue weaves history and Rose’s personal story together well, and Sargent’s presentation is compelling. The story of the Holocaust is well-known, but “Rose” puts a personal face on it. It is not easy for a single actor to keep an audience’s attention for a full-length play such as this one, but Sargent does an admirable job. She seemed sometimes to stumble over her lines the night I attended, but she was, after all, playing a woman with some memory confusion.

The set was simple, but appealing: dark furniture in a serene setting.  Sargent was dressed in a patterned top and striped pants, both in shades of brown, emphasizing something she says about her first husband’s artistic sense: “Jews are not very visual; look at what we wear.”

Performances are at 8 PM tonight, tomorrow, and Saturday. Tickets are $15, and reservations may be made by calling 508-540-6525.

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