William Inge’s play, A Loss of Roses, was a flop on Broadway when it opened in 1959, and judging by this revival it’s not hard to see why. Inge, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of Picnic and other successful plays in that decade, credited the show’s failure to hasty changes in the script made for its New York premiere at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. But the show, even in the original form now being performed by the Peccadillo Theater Company, is still a dud. While some overlooked plays by great masters deserve a second consideration, A Loss of Roses is not one of them.
Like many of Inge’s plays, A Loss of Roses takes place in a small town in the American heartland. Here, it’s Kansas in 1933, during the Great Depression. While mention is made of the Depression, Inge’s characters seem to be some of the lucky few hardly affected by it. “All attempts to deal with men in groups, or as objects of time and environment, I think, fail,” Inge writes in a forward to his script.
Agree with him or not, but it’s clear that Kenny and Helen Baird, the mother-son duo at the center of A Loss of Roses are indeed more concerned with their own struggles than those of the wider world. 21-year-old Kenny (Ben Kahre) has decided to take a job in town and live at home, content to spend his time boozing and womanizing, rather than work in an airplane factory in Wichita. Helen (Deborah Hedwall) is distressed by her son’s contradictory lack of ambition and desire for greater independence. They both continue to deal with the death of Helen’s husband, whose absence has created uncertainty and tension in their parent-child relationship.
This only becomes more pronounced with the arrival of Lila (Jean Lichty), an out-of-work actress who used to take care of Kenny when he was a child. Loud, blond and faux-glamorous, she enters the quiet Baird home with a gaggle of theater types in tow, including a greasy boyfriend, Ricky (Jonathan Stewart), who promises to return for her. As the play progresses, it seems only a matter of time before Lila and Kenny, separated by a few years but equally desperate for companionship, find each other.
Harry Feiner’s backdrop morphs gradually to reflect the progression of the day, from oranges to blues, to black, starry night. It’s the subtlest effect in the entire show. In other cases, as in the use of syrupy music during some monologues, creative decisions seem only to inch Inge’s vision closer to melodrama. By the time Lila and Kenny, after a glacially slow build up, have gotten together and separated with startling speed, that melodrama has gone full throttle.
Lila, in her self-aggrandizement, delusions and fragility, exists in the shadow of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, but lacks her complexity and charm. As Lila, Lichty bursts breathlessly in on the scene and unfortunately never quite alters her tone or her volume. Kahre shows some more range, but together their on-stage chemistry is nonetheless about as hot as day-old pie.
The play, Inge has said, is Lila’s, but while her plight to find comfort and security in a man might have been compelling decades ago, it feels laughably stale now. When Lila wistfully and apparently sincerely utters a line like, “Sometimes I wish I could crawl inside a man’s big roomy chest and just live there, warm and protected,” it sounds almost farcical.
We may never know precisely what Inge had in mind for A Loss of Roses, but comedy almost surely wasn’t the original intention. It wasn’t likely the intention for the Pecadillo Theater Company either, but when it comes to a play so histrionic, un-ironic and old-fashioned, it seems all but inevitable.