Last weekend, I bumped into my friend Toby Zinman, theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, on the street in New York. Both of us were matinee-bound. Toby was off to a new play (Nicky Silver’s Too Much Sun – her funny review is here.)
I, on the other hand, was heading for a production of William Inge’s A Loss of Roses, which flopped on Broadway in 1959 and has seldom been seen since. When I told this to Toby, she smiled – “Ah, yes – one of your revivals.”
It’s true. I love my revivals.
New plays are life’s blood to the theater, and I’m thrilled to discover a young writer with a distinctive voice. But from early childhood, I was always histocurious – more often, I sought out old movies, old music, old plays.
I guess I love them because they connect me with a different world. For American playwrights, the 1930s through the ‘60s were a time when the theater economy wasn’t a constant struggle – plays could have large casts, and running times of nearly three hours. Longer and bigger isn’t always good, but there’s a lot to be said for the scale we see in some older plays. And even the lesser works can often teach us something, or at least offer a window into a different kind of life.
Case in point – A Loss of Roses. William Inge was a friend and disciple of Tennessee Williams, and very much a playwright of the old school. Even his best work (I’d nominate Come Back, Little Sheba and Bus Stop) is sometimes overwrought and too self-consciously literary. But Inge also had deep compassion for the small, sad lives of the marginalized Midwesterners he knew so well (he was born in Liberty, Kansas), and he is capable of beautiful portraiture.
We see both aspects in A Loss of Roses. Sure, it creaks from time to time. But in a fine if imperfect revival at St. Clement’s, there’s a lot to like.
In brief – the play is set in depression-era Kansas, where Helen, a middle-aged widow living with her adult son, Kenny, takes in a friend from their earlier, happier time – Lila, who once worked as Kenny’s babysitter, but subsequently went on to become an actress. The troubled economy has shuttered a tour she was involved in, leaving her more or less homeless.
In the earnest, honorable production at St. Clement’s, the center – that is, an evolving romantic relationship between Kenny and Lila – doesn’t quite hold. Part of the problem is casting. Ben Kahre is certainly handsome enough, but he’s too much the likeable boy next door. (The first time around, this was the 22-year-old Warren Beatty, in what would be his only Broadway appearance, and I can imagine his sexy loucheness was exactly right.)
Jean Lichty plays Lila without too much self-pity or obvious fragility, instead making her a kind of rueful survivor. I admire the choice, which is certainly more palatable to contemporary audiences. But we miss the sense that these two characters are linked in a profound, soul-searing way. Instead, they look like a very appealing pair who don’t generate much chemistry.
In the end, it’s not the Lila-Kenny relationship that makes A Loss of Roses compelling. It’s the larger picture throughout, where Inge captures, with translucent insight, both the external confidence these people show to each other, and the deeper sense of despair that’s underneath. A Loss of Roses reminded me of a book and movie that affected me profoundly as a teenager – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, another depression era character study (and yes – another example of my interest in the past.)
Though I saw the show nearly a week ago, I’m still thinking about it – most of all, about the character of Helen, who is full of comedy and pathos, and absolutely, heartbreakingly believable. Inge intended it for Shirley Booth, but ultimately it was created by Betty Field, an Inge veteran (wonderful in the films of both Picnic and Bus Stop).
I imagine Booth would have been great, but perhaps not better than Deborah Hedwall is here, in a delicate, nuanced performance. She would be sensational in some of the roles that Geraldine Page created in her later career.
Yup – I’m already thinking about future revivals!