Before last Friday night, the saddest, most "depressing" Depression-era story I had read was Horace McCoy's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" However, after watching The Arkansas Repertory Theatre's opening performance of William Inge's "A Loss of Roses," I can attest that this play is as rough and unflinching as that Depression-era tale, or any other. The Rep has truly outdone itself by closing its 36th season with this unheralded masterpiece of 20th century playwriting. (So curiously under-appreciated is "A Loss of Roses," penned by Pulitzer Prize-winner Inge, that it doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. "Jersey Shore" has a Wikipedia page. The "Twilight" franchise has a Wikipedia page. "A Loss of Roses" does not. Yay, America.)
The story revolves around the relationships between Kenny Baird, his mother and a longtime friend of the family, Lila Green. Kenny, the 21-year-old only child of Helen, is employed at a local service station, where he earns a good wage, enough to be able to split the household bills with Helen, who works as a nurse. They eat well and keep the kitchen stocked with the finest things in life: beer, cigarettes and store-bought pie. Lightly rooted in this blue-collar, Midwestern relative paradise is Kenny's budding manhood, unhealthily tethered to his mother's eternal doting. Helen, a church-going widow in her 40s, wants what's best for Kenny, but certainly spoils him in the process.
Into this fiscally sound, yet emotionally unsustainable family dynamic comes Lila, an out-of-work dancer and actress, old family friend and ex-babysitter to Kenny. During her stay, Lila inadvertently stirs up a complex broth of feelings in emotionally immature Kenny, and at first, consciously maintains strictly sisterly affections toward him. She also rekindles her friendship with Helen, and throughout her stay the two develop a healthy bond. In a crucial, tender scene, Lila confides in Helen and shares her story. There is drinking in her story, and late nights, and multiple men, a failed marriage, sexual abuse, social stigma, an attempted suicide and even self-institutionalization. Lila personifies the harsh effects of the Great Depression, particularly on women, as she has been forced, like millions, to lead a life of involuntary, survivalist moral squalor. In this stark moment, the two women commiserate in their mutually held belief that "there just aren't any good men anymore." Their sad realization haunts the rest of the play. The final line is as gut-wrenching and memorable as any in a play (or film) that I have seen. It quite literally still echoes in my mind.
It is difficult to report which of the three lead actors turned in the best performance, as each one utterly commanded the stage. Bret Lada's Kenny initially draws the attention as the play's opening moments unfold. The gruff petulance that begins his character arc rings behind the opening lines of dialogue like the alarm that ends the dream. Lada imbues unease into his role, perfectly exemplifying the headstrong improvidence of youth, and it is a pleasure to watch Kenny feel genuine remorse for his selfish actions as he steps finally into the confusion that is adulthood.
It is humbling to watch the spiritual degradation of Lila, who's impossibly still full of love and hope, after a life of unfulfilled promises. Jean Lichty's heart-breaking portrayal of Lila showcases quite subtly the disease that is human desperation.
If it weren't for Jane Summerhays as the wondrous, warm Helen, a character of strength and solemnity, I would have given "A Loss of Roses" my personal prize for the saddest thing I have ever seen. Summerhays' Helen is, for certain, the warm glow around which the other characters' huddle.
"A Loss of Roses" is a bittersweet gem of a story, eloquently told by actors whose performances pay homage to a work of American fiction on par with the best of Tennessee Williams.
Watching director Austin Pendleton, and the actors, bask in the feeling of (flawlessly) resuscitating a left-for-dead American masterpiece was something very special indeed. This is truly a play that should not be missed.
"A Loss of Roses" continues through July 1. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $35 to $40.