After a decade as the most successful American playwright, William Inge always thought that the reason for the quick failure in 1959 of his fifth Broadway play, A Loss of Roses, was that director Daniel Mann had insisted on the wrong ending. Peccadillo Theater Company, in association with LaFemme Theatre Productions, is presenting the first New York revival of the play using the original script that Inge had wanted. While Dan Wackerman’s production is always engrossing, this earlier script does not solve the problems of the play nor does the current casting.
During the decade of the 1950’s, Inge dominated the Broadway stage with four huge hits: Come Back, Little Sheba, Picnic (a Pulitzer Prize winner), Bus Stop and Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Aside from his original screenplay for the 1961 movie hit, Splendor in the Grass, Inge appeared to lose his touch with three quick failures in a row: A Loss of Roses, Natural Affection (revived by TACT/The Actors Company Theatre in 2013) and Where’s Daddy?. During this period, Inge cornered the market on stories of the American Midwest particularly Kansas, often with young people who want to spread their wings and see the bigger world.
Inge reported that the idea for the 1959 A Loss of Roses began when he decided to combine an Oedipal complex story with one about the Venus and Adonis myth. Given the fact that Inge’s own mother had just died and he was deep in Freudian analysis over both his own Oedipal complex and his homosexuality, you have the background for the play. Set in typical Inge country, a small town in Kansas in 1933 at the height of the Depression, we meet Helen Baird (Deborah Hedwall), a widow and a nurse, and her 21-year-old son Kenny (Ben Kahre), two years out of high school and working at a dead end job in a garage. Husband Big Kenny had died five years earlier in a drowning accident. The younger Kenny is resentful that his mother no longer cooks for him and that he is not given the privileges that paying half the bills ought to allow him. However, Kenny has turned down a higher paying job in a factory in Wichita in order to stay home and help his mother.
Into this uncomfortably tense situation comes Lila Green (Jean Lichty), a former friend and neighbor, now an actress down on her luck. As her tent show has closed suddenly on the road and her friends are going on to Kansas City, Helen has graciously invited Lila to spend some time with them in order to rest up after her ordeal. We are told that blonde and beautiful Lila, who is only 11 years older than Kenny, was once his babysitter before she went off to work in traveling shows. Kenny at first resents the fact that he has to give up his room to her and sleep on the davenport in the living room. Although Kenny does not remember her, Lila’s warm, open personality wins him over immediately and he is immediately smitten by her. While Helen has knowingly brought the more worldly Lila into the house, she is apprehensive that Lila and Kenny will become too close.
In Inge’s introduction to the published version of the play, he claims that the quick Broadway failure was due to the fact that director Mann insisted that the play was Kenny’s story and that it end with him and his mother. Inge believed that the play is Lila’s and he ends the published version with the original ending in which Lila tells Helen her story about the loss of the roses: she brought her teacher roses on her first day of school, then wanted to go home when she was reprimanded for talking, but could not get her flowers back. There have been so many things she has still wanted back ever since.
Even in this revised version, the play has two problems. Despite Inge’s belief, the play is not Lila’s who never changes but Kenny’s as the through line is his coming of age. However, the other problem is that Inge’s use of Freud and the Oedipal complex is extremely murky. Kenny tells us that since the death of his father Big Kenny he has wanted to replace him in his mother’s life. He refuses to go out with the nice girls that his mother picks out for him, but instead receives her wrath for seeing loose women he meets at the drugstore or the pool room. Lila (who offers to cook for Kenny and doesn’t mind his coming home drunk the way his mother does) is used simply as a device to give Kenny the maternal love he feels he has not been getting. Lila is also the sexualized woman that Helen has been very careful to avoid becoming around Kenny.
On the other hand, Helen reveals that she has tried to push Kenny away so as not to destroy him, like her refusing to cook and her dowdy appearance. Helen refuses to allow sex to be mentioned by Kenny in her presence and is a very pious churchwoman who tends to judge other people. When Lila wants Kenny to sit in his father’s chair at the table, Helen retorts that he is not his father. Eventually she tells him she has purposefully tried to remain independent as she expects him to leave home someday and get married. He retorts that he may not get married. She tells Kenny he is different from other boys suggesting he is more sensitive with the possible fear that he has homosexual tendencies. While Kenny has been an only child, he lost his father when he was a freshman in high school, not the age when boys become dependent on their mothers.
Another shortcoming of the revival is the casting. As directed by Wackerman, Hedwall is domineering and shrill to the extent that she would have driven son Kenny away a long time ago. There is no sense of her being conflicted that she wants her son to stay but knows he must go. As the performer in touring shows, Lichty is so actressy that she makes Lila both artificial and unbelievable. Resembling both the naïve Cherie from Inge’s Bus Stop and the sexually experienced Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire by Inge’s mentor Tennessee Williams, Lila is one of those girl-child Madonna/whores that are so difficult to make ring true. Ironically, Lichty has had much experience acting Inge’s women, having played both Cherie and Lila twice before.
Kahre has the difficult role of Kenny, one created by Warren Beatty in his Tony Award nominated performance and which Richard Beymer played in the drastically rewritten film version retitled The Stripper. Kahre’s Kenny is definitely conflicted, but he has not entirely made up his mind whether he is bound by an Oedipal complex or guilt over wanting to abandon his mother due to the death of his father. He is at times bland where he ought to have made a definite choice in his interpretation. His relationship with his neighborhood friend and former classmate Jelly played by Gregory Perri doesn’t help much as Perri plays him as less mature than his age of 21 would lead you to expect. Inge’s working out his own Oedipal complex had first arisen with Sonny in his previous play Dark at the Top of the Stairs and would become the major problem of Donnie in his next play, Natural Affection.
The rest of the cast make brief but decisive appearances. When Lila arrives with her acting friends, we meet the grand dame Mme. Olga St. Valentine played by an amusingly over-the-top Patricia Hodges. As Ronny Cavendish, the first of Inge’s gay men, Marty Thomas takes the role even further than written, which adds depth to the play. Jonathan Stewart is disappointing as Ricky Powers, Lila’s aggressive and brutal boyfriend who does not suggest enough of his sadistic and cruel nature. As a metaphor for Lila’s optimistic future which has soured, Kristen Sweeney and Fina Strazza put in a last minute appearance as a mother and daughter on their way to the first day of school.
Harry Feiner’s detailed and period appropriate setting for the Baird bungalow on the wide stage of St. Clements does not suggest the claustrophobia that Helen and Kenny feel. While Feiner is responsible for the lighting design, it is the projected skyscapes by Feiner and Ido Levran (who also created the streaming video) that are most effective. The costumes by Marianne Custer are evocative of the period. The romantic sounding music is part of the sound design by David Thomas.
The Peccadillo Theater Company’s attempt to resurrect the reputation of William Inge’s A Loss ofRoses is commendable, considering the renewed interest in the playwright’s work. While Dan Wackerman’s production is always absorbing, the muddled psychology in the script and the debatable choices made by the actors keep the play from joining Inge’s more important major plays.
A Loss of Roses (through June 7, 2014)
Peccadillo Theatre Company
Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-253-3101 or http://www.thepeccadillo.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission