Chicago Theater Review: A LOSS OF ROSES (Raven)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 23, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


William Inge knew the human heart better than a surgeon. In Bus Stop, Picnic, Come Back, Little Sheba, and Dark at the Top of the Stairs, this closeted author exposes our secret selves: With the emotional acuity of his cohort Tennessee Williams, Inge imagines and invents needy, lonely, and thwarted souls ready to matter (to another). Sometimes they get love. But keeping it is different.

Eliza Stoughton & Sam HubbardTrue to form (but not formulae), Inge’s 1959 domestic drama A Loss of Roses (which starred a very young Warren Beatty) is a late offering. Its back-to-basics setting, a throwback, returns us to Depression-era Kansas and a human dustbowl. Inge’s constants remain—loved ones who don’t feel loved enough or for the wrong reasons and the search for a social security that’s not from checks. His people know “how hard it is to be good.”

Incandescently shaped by Cody Estle, Raven Theatre’s revival (running in repertory with Horton Foote’s much less touching or believable The Old Friends) honors the heartland honesty and downhome decency of Inge’s sad seekers. Contrary to a lousy lie, hard times don’t require hard hearts—quite the opposite. Inge’s survivors need a reason to prevail, not just a plan. If money can’t be the answer and may indeed be the problem, love seems as crucial as air.

Sam Hubbard, Antonio Zhiurinskas

It’s hardscrabble 1933 and the locale is a small town outside Kansas City. Here 21-year-old auto mechanic Kenny Baird (Sam Hubbard, salt of the earth and torn between safety and the future) is “taking his time” as he shelters from change. This sweet-faced lad lives with and adores his single mother Helen (Abigail Boucher, awesomely authentic). This religious-minded widow badly wants her mama’s boy to take flight and leave the nest. But Kenny wants to protect her like his lost hero of a dad. Or is that just a cover-up for his fear of his own feelings? Wanting a car but not to leave, Kenny prefers the company of the looser ladies at the roller rink to the snooty neighbor girl who probably is too good for him.

Sam Hubbard, Abigail Boucher in A LOSS OF ROSES at Raven Theatre.

Into their impasse comes a childhood chum who neither Baird has seen since their days in Oklahoma. An actress of an uncertain age (between Kenny’s and his mother’s), Lila Green (Eliza Stoughton, laceratingly intense) is an amalgam of Tennessee William’s Blanche DuBois and Chekhov’s Madame Ranevskaya. Almost too good at performing, this thespian can be lonely in a crowd; she’s only rooted in a role.  “Aunt” Lilia has had enough man trouble to fill a dozen resumés. But she keeps hoping—and young Kenny seems the perfect lover to snap her bad luck for good.

Raven Roses 5 - Stoughton-Reitsma

Inge surrounds Lisa with briefly glimpsed but richly written actors out of Dickens (Lane Flores, Barbara Roeder Harris, and Joel Reitsma). These histrionic players are caught “between engagements” and eager to find bookings in vaudeville or the legitimate stage. Inge also gives Kenny a context, specifically his loutish pal “Jelly” (Antonio Zhiurinskas), a jealous friend who’s capable of emotional blackmail and envies Kenny his good looks.

Eliza Stoughton

But the playwright’s tender loving care is for the three well-intentioned principals, folks whose individual happiness defies a mutual solution. Sensitive to the point of suicide, unbalanced Lila wants and wishes things too hard and often to make them happen. She must also contend with an abusive boyfriend (Reitsma) who wants to pimp her out at a gin joint. In clashing contrast, Helen believes that rectitude and righteousness are goals as much as means. That’s altogether too judgmental and calculating for Kenny. He wants to earn love but he’s scared to settle (down).

Eliza Stoughton, Sam Hubbard

Lila and Kenny’s clandestine passion is a secret the audience can both cherish and fear. Will Lila’s too-childlike trust in men inflict one more “loss of roses,” like the gift she gave to an unworthy teacher who refused to return it? Will Kenny earn the right to think he deserves an older woman’s unconditional love? How much must he let go before he can move on?

Eliza Stoughton, Abigail Boucher

It’s striking how Raven’s 140 minutes make us care about these questions, even more for their answers. As detailed as Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s cut-away cottage or Alexia Rutherford’s costumes, Estle’s marvelous staging puts a golden cast of seven on a very inevitable course. However many twists turn this tale, each seems exactly right the moment it happens. It’s all gain with A Loss of Roses.

Abigail Boucher, Barbara Roeder-Harris, Eliza Stoughton

photos by Dean La Prairie

A Loss of Roses
Raven Theatre
6157 N. Clark St. (at Granville)
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sat & Sun at 3:30 (check schedule)
ends on April 2, 2016
for tickets, call 773.338.2177 or visit Raven Theatre

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