A Loss of Roses
At the Raven Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago– For much of the 1950’s, William Inge was a major American playwright, with a string of four commercial and critical hits in a row. Then the wheels fell off his career and a combination of depression, alcoholism, and sexual tensions led to his suicide in 1973.
Inge’s plays fell off the radar during the last decades of the 20th century but there are signs of a turnaround, especially with the reevaluation of the plays that flopped after 1957. The first of those flops was “A Loss of Roses,” now receiving a commendable revival at the Raven Theatre. It’s not a great play but it holds an audience and there is an honesty and realism about the drama that command respect.
“A Loss of Roses” takes place in what has been called Ingeland, the small town Midwest during the 1930’s and 1940’s. In “A Loss of Roses,” the year is 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression. Helen, a middle aged widow, and her 21-year old son Kenny reside in a house in a small town in Kansas. They live a Spartan existence, but at least they are both working (Helen as a nurse and Kenny as an auto mechanic) so they are in better economic shape than a lot of the lower middle class people around them.
Helen and Kenny are locked in a bond made up of affection and conflict. Helen mothers Kenny to excess and the lad resents it but he does enjoy being pampered. They continually get on each other’s nerves, and the household sorely needing the influence of a father figure for the son.
All photos by Dean La Prairie
Into this dysfunctional emotional relationship comes Lila, an childhood friend of Helen’s and a small-time traveling actress whose touring company just went bankrupt in the economic holocaust of the depression. Lila asks to stay with Helen for a time because she’s broke and homeless. Helen takes her in and the dynamic of the household changes with the addition of an attractive and worldly and unattached woman injected into the mix with a young male ready to move up from the dull or trashy girls of his hometown. From the moment Lila enters, the audience knows the woman and Kenny are on a collision course.
Inge at his best had a sure hand at creating small-scale characters nursing frustrations and grievances that predictably explode before the characters retreat back into their cliché-ridded, dull lives. What resolutions the playwright provides seem schematic and predictable but overall Inge treats his characters with sympathy, recognizing they will forever be holding the short stick in life. Upbeat twists at the end of his plays are likely to be illusions.
“A Loss of Roses” revolves around its three core figures, though there are shrewdly drawn complementary characters that add color and often humor to the plights of Helen, Kenny, and Lila. Inge was a master at fleshing out his plays with cameo appearances that give the main narrative rich dramatic seasoning.
By the final blackout, all three main characters have experienced a seismic shift in their lives. Lila gets the worst deal and one does not envy her future. Kenny is young enough to advance a few notches in life but Helen is stuck in perpetual widowhood—her parental situation collapsed and her life one dreary day after another, punctuated with some nurture from her church.
All photos by Dean La Prairie
The Raven Theatre production profits from a spot-on physical production that realistically locates the characters in the drab small-town 1930’s. Jeffrey Kmiec’s detailed set gets a creative maximum out of a confining theater space. Costume designer Alexia Rutherford’s dowdy depression era costumes underscore the bland and unexciting lives we eavesdrop on. Greg Hofmann’s lighting and Christopher Kriz’s sound design and original music further wrap the action in its historical and social time and place.
Director Cody Estle guides the characters with an unerring hand. The acting by Abigail Boucher (Helen), Sam Hubbard (Kenny) and Eliza Stoughton (Lila) may be on the artless side but they bring their characters credibly to life and everything that happens to them comes across as credible and ultimately inevitable. That’s about all the actors can do.
The supporting cast of Lane Flores, Barbara Roeder Harris, Joel Reitsma, and Antonio Zhiurinskas is outstanding. Harris in particular does a deft comic turn as a hammy aging actress determined to brave it out until the next role comes along, which may be never. I’d like to see her in a role that gives her more stage time.
“A Loss of Roses” operates on a low wattage level. There are a handful of theatrical moments but mostly the characters are trapped in their own vulnerabilities and blighted hopes. But they still are worth knowing and caring about. Viewers who want incendiary drama can consult Tennessee Williams. For those who want social consciousness, there is Arthur Miller. For wisecracking comedy, try Neil Simon. But there is much to be said for visiting William Inge’s audience-involving intimate world of disappointment and failure.
“A Loss of Roses” runs through April 2 at the Raven Theatre, 6157 North Clark Street. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $42 ($39 if purchased on line). Call 773 338 2177 or visit www.raventheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of 3 stars.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.
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