Arts: Theatre - The story of a survivor

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The Independent Culture
THE ONLY thing I didn't care for at the opening night of Martin Sherman's Rose was the standing ovation at the end of it. True, it was a nice irony that a solo show featuring an entirely sedentary 80-year- old character concluded with virtually the entire house on its feet. And, to be sure, the wonderfully sensitive and adroit performance by the Oscar- winning Olympia Dukakis deserves acclaim. But am I being picky and ungrateful in identifying this as one of those standing ovations where you're left wondering what more the audience could have expressed, if the actress had in fact undergone - instead of merely impersonating - the play's story of feisty survival against dreadful odds?

And am I doing the monologue's heroine a disservice in suggesting that she herself would have reacted with scepticism at the strong hint of unearned self-congratulation in the audience's applause?

Dukakis plays Rose, an elderly Jewish woman, who is "sitting shiva", a ritual of mourning for the dead. As she sits and pops pills to help her breathing problem, she pours out anecdotes about a life that has taken her from a shtetl in the Ukraine, through the Warsaw Ghetto, to a new life in Atlantic City and then success in the hotel business in Miami.

The play could have been a defiant hymn to endurance, along the lines of the Stephen Sondheim song, "I'm Still Here". But Sherman complicates and darkens the proceedings by showing that Rose loses more than a succession of husbands en route.

Directed with self-effacing skill by Nancy Meckler, the play begins and ends with Rose sitting shiva for a little girl struck dead by a bullet in the forehead. The index of its dramatic development is that the perceived identity of this little girl changes.

At first, it seems to be Rose's own daughter, murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto. By the end, with the story now brought forward to the present day, you realise that the child she is mourning was, in fact, killed by Rose's Zionist grandson, during a riot in Israel.

From one form of brutal intolerance to another: the sheer breadth of Rose's experience gives her the moral right to register these ironies.

I loved her response when her daughter-in-law, born a Christian, rounds on her with the full bigotry of the convert and tells her that she does not deserve to call herself a Jew. "I thought, well - just about the time my entire family was wiped out because they were Jewish, you, my dear, were being baptised in Kansas."

Dukakis has a face that can give the impression of holding in check the tears of all the ages and lift into curves of wry appreciation life's black little jokes. I applaud the play (which directs blows at British policy with regard to Jews after the war) and its star - though from a sitting position.

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