‘Rosemary and I," the Passage Theater production that opened at Trenton’s Mill Hill Playhouse on February 10, is a New Jersey premier. It also marks the directorial debut of Tony Award-winning actress Blair Brown. The odyssey of a middle-aged woman struggling to come to grips with her past, the play, written by Leslie Ayvazian, was first produced last spring at MetroStage in Alexandria, Virginia, co-directed by Olympia Dukakis and Nancy Robillard.
As the one-act play opens, Julia (played by Ayvazian) sits alone in a rented room sorting through the contents of a handbag that once belonged to her mother. Each item in the handbag – a bell, a dime-store tiara, a cache of ostrich feathers – triggers a memory, but none of them seems to be quite the starting point Julia needs. As she casts about for a way to make sense of her past, the present intrudes.
Rosemary, the mother, enters stage right, to attend an open-air concert. Once a well-known singer, she was away on tour through much of Julia’s childhood. Rosemary (played by Judith Anna Roberts) has aged gracefully and is still beautiful. While Rosemary waits for the concert to begin, Elizabeth (Susan Blommaert), her long-time accompanist, unexpectedly appears. Elizabeth’s curt, businesslike manner gradually softens as the two women begin talking.
They have not seen each other for years and – both widows – they have much to discuss. Their reminiscences take them back to a romantic afternoon long ago, when they shared a kiss in a Paris garden. Each remembers every detail of that day, which has haunted them both through the intervening years.
The scene shifts back to the rented room where Julia is grappling with her own haunting memories. Before long Julia’s father "Papa" (Hal Robinson) also appears. A pleasant-enough man, it seems that – like his wife – he too was frequently absent from Julia’s life. He was busy visiting "Gretchen," a hairdresser who lived in a basement apartment. Sometimes during his trysts he left Julia in the care of a seamstress on the first floor of Gretchen’s building. Julia remembers there were "pins everywhere."
Ayvazian indulges in a grotesque, gorilla-like imitation of Gretchen, the "hairy" hairdresser, leaving the audience in little doubt of Julia’s opinion about the woman who stole her father.
Despite his insistence that he was a "central figure" in the family drama and in Julia’s childhood, the fact that "Papa" is nameless is indicative of his peripheral importance. He seems to float in and out of family life, much like his glamorous spouse.
Julia remembers Elizabeth, on the other hand, as a frequent disciplinarian whom her mother enlisted when Julia misbehaved. A difficult child, Julia had violent tantrums that interrupted rehearsals. If the tantrums were bids for attention, however, they only served to distance Rosemary, who could not cope with them.
Instead, she sent Julia souvenir bells from various exotic locations that she visited during her travels. Far from evoking pleasant images of her absent mother, the bells oppressed Julia, who heard them "clanging, clanging in my head."
The play, which lasts only an hour, is somewhat confusing, as the scenes fluctuate between past and present. They also alternate between the actual past and a past that Julia manipulates. At one point she seats her parents together and asks Rosemary to put her head on Papa’s shoulder. "And what about me?" demands Elizabeth. "You go away!" says Julia.
The actors, all experienced professionals, deliver generally outstanding performances. Roberts, as Rosemary, and Blommaert, as Elizabeth, are elegant and low-key in comparison to Ayvazian, whose overly boisterous antics as Julia, at times approach the slapstick. Robinson plays the well-meaning but ineffectual Papa to perfection.
The set by Chris Skeens – a sparsely furnished room and bare brick walls – is a fitting backdrop for Julia’s exercise in memory; and Charles S. Reece’s lighting is impeccable.
"Rosemary and I" is one of 12 finalists for the Susan Smith Blackburn prize, an award given annually to a woman playwright for work written for the English-speaking theater. One reviewer hailed "Rosemary and I" for its "same-sex romantic feelings interpreted by actors of a certain age." The relationship between the two women is central to the play, but it should not be seen as the main focus of the drama.
It is, rather, Julia’s efforts to cope with her disjointed memories that drive the play. Hers is the most fully developed character. She represents, after all, a flesh-and-blood person, while the others must play the one-dimensional roles her imagination has assigned to them.
By turns manipulative, spoiled, petulant, and resentful, Julia seems unable to embrace her history. In the end, while not happy, she may at least have understood it. "Start with a woman alone," she says. She could be referring to any of the play’s three female characters.
"Rosemary and I," Passage Theater Company, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery Streets, Trenton. 609-392-0766. Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. Through Sunday, February 27.