Inge earned his reputation for writing plays that dug deeply into the private lives of small town folks in the American Midwest, where appearances and fitting in are all important, and gossip and passing judgment are favored pastimes. He made a name for himself in the 1950s with such successes as Come Back, Little Sheba, Bus Stop, and Picnic, the latter a Pulitzer Prize winner. A Loss of Roses was written after all of these, but it does seem like a rough draft sorely in need of focus and tightening. A good first effort you’d call it, if the playwright were not so well established.
None of this is to fault the three lead actors, all of whom give solid performances in roles that bear more than a passing resemblance to ones indelibly created by Williams. Deborah Hedwall plays Helen, a middle-aged woman who, like Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, is on her own, has to hold down a job in order to maintain her home, and expresses a deep disappointment in her 21-year-old son Kenny, played with a cat-like restlessness by Ben Kahre. Kenny is a young man without ambition or direction, who, like Tom Wingfield, goes out every night for drink and sex. The details are different, of course, but the similarity is clearly there.
Into this scene of domestic bickering and co-dependence comes Lila Green (Jean Lichty), a former neighbor and now a tent show actress, down on her luck and seeking refuge after the acting company she is with has folded. Only with Lila’s appearance do we understand that the play is taking place during the Great Depression. Helen and Kenny both have decent jobs, and they are in no danger of losing their home. But Lila’s story is another matter, with sexual abuse, at least one suicide attempt, and a stay in a mental hospital in her past and scant options in her future. She is Inge’s version of Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire.
Inge does seem intent on having us engage with all three characters. Each has enough idiosyncrasies to draw us in and make us want more, but that “more” remains elusive as the playwright fails to provide depth. Only Lila’s story is sufficiently compelling to make us care what happens to her. Helen and Kenny will be fine, but when the tiny glimmer of hope Lila reaches for vanishes and she makes her exit near the end of the play, we do fear for her future.
When A Loss of Roses played on Broadway in 1959, it opened to poor reviews and ran for only three weeks, all but disappearing altogether after that. The Peccadillo Theater Company, which has produced this revival in association with La Femme Theatre Productions, is to be commended to giving admirers of Inge’s work the opportunity to see this effort. If the play itself fails to thrill, the three central performances, under the direction of Dan Wackerman, are never less than interesting to watch, though it is impossible to watch them without imagining cuts and revisions that might have allowed the character of Lila to more fully come into her own. She may linger in your memory long after recollections of the play have evaporated.
A Loss of Roses