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It's been a good year for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, having brought to its stage both literary classics ("To Kill a Mockingbird," "A Christmas Carol: The Musical") and contemporary musicals straight from Broadway ("The Wiz," "Next to Normal"). Bringing to a close its 36th season, The Rep is presenting William Inge's "A Loss of Roses," opening June 15, for what will be one of the few productions of the play since it opened in 1959.
In Depression-era Kansas, Helen (Jane Summerhays) is a widow in her mid-40s, whose son, 21-year-old Kenny (Bret Lada), has not yet left home for marriage or work. Conflict is stirred when Lila (Jean Lichty) — an old friend of Helen's who is in her early 30s — arrives on their doorstep, coming through town as an actress in a traveling show. Lila used to help Helen out when Kenny was a baby; nonetheless, sexual tension rises between her and the younger man, propelling all three of them toward catastrophe. Like much of Inge's work, it exposes a family that is fractured by deep emotional and Freudian complications.
So why is the play so rare? Inge is remembered for several successful Broadway plays, including "Picnic" and "Bus Stop" (the latter being made into a movie with Marilyn Monroe in 1956), and was lauded for his sensitive depictions of small-town Midwestern life. But the original production of "A Loss of Roses" was a flop when it opened in 1959, running for only three weeks and practically extinguishing his career on Broadway. Lacking a Wikipedia entry, it even fails the litmus test for modern-day relevancy.
Yet Austin Pendleton, who is directing it at The Rep, admits that it might be his favorite work of Inge's. Pendleton, a graduate of Yale, was Tony-nominated for his work on a Broadway production of "The Little Foxes" that starred Elizabeth Taylor. He's also had numerous film roles and is a member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
"I was very moved by it, and very haunted by the fact that this was the play that turned his good fortune around," he explains. "After 'A Loss of Roses,' his reputation fell apart. He killed himself 14 years later, and during that time, even his successful plays were considered out of fashion. I don't know of any other playwright who's had such a failure with so many other successes."
Pendleton discovered the play in 2003 at the William Inge Theater Festival in Inge's hometown of Independence, Kan. "I thought to myself, how could the play have been such a flop? I've been in a couple of productions and movies that could not have gone wrong, and yet they did."
Somehow, "A Loss of Roses" went wrong, too. Its 1959 production was cursed by persistent script changes and the feeble nerves of its star, Shirley Booth, who was in the role of Helen, and who ended up exiting the show two weeks before opening night. Critics turned up their noses, although it did earn Warren Beatty a Tony nomination for his performance as Kenny — a sign, Pendleton assures, of redeemable qualities that were hampered by an unfortunate production.
Lichty, who is a proud Inge devotee, said, "When I started working on this with Austin, people told me, have you read the reviews? They're scathing! Why don't you try another one?"
She said her attraction to Inge is personal. Her grandparents are from a town not far from Independence, where the festival was held. "He writes wonderfully about the Midwest," she said, "and captures perfectly the way that they speak, and the heartbreaking importance that's placed on everyday things. He also writes incredible roles for women — his female characters are so complicated and fascinating."
This is the second Inge play that Pendleton and Lichty have been involved with, having previously collaborated on a production of "Bus Stop" at the Olney Theatre outside Washington, D.C., and produced and performed in two staged readings in New York, with Alec Baldwin and Brian Cox. After a staged reading of "A Loss of Roses" in New York in 2010 at the Cherry Lane Theater, she and Pendleton began searching for small regional theaters around the country that seemed right for a revival of the play, and The Rep's enthusiasm caught their eye. Now, with a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a version of the script that restores Inge's original ending (as opposed to the changes made for Shirley Booth that he did not approve of), the show is ready to turn around its luck.
"Nobody knows anything about the play," Pendleton said, "and nobody really knows how it works with audiences. In that sense, it's like doing a premiere."
"A Loss of Roses" opens at The Rep on Friday, June 15. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays; the play runs through July 1. It contains adult language and content, and might not be suitable for children. Pay-what-you-can night is June 13 at 7 p.m. and there is a preview performance June 14 at 7 p.m.