June 1967. What memories does that bring? Sgt. Pepper, The Rolling Stones, bell bottoms, assassinations, the conflict with ’50s conformity, trouble in the Middle East? This is the era summoned by Timothy M. Kolman’s play The Roses in June, which is now receiving its world premiere at Plays and Players Theatre in Philadelphia. If you are too young to remember the above, projection designer Olivia Sebesky and sound designer Megan Cully offer an excellent overture of film, slides and music to set the scene.
The play’s themes could not be more contemporary: the plight of refugees and the attitudes of the countries that take them in. Rather than address these issues directly, the playwright delves into his past and creates a historical pageant that is all the more powerful because it is unique.
Kolman’s personal journey is a fascinating one. He is a well-known Philadelphia attorney who grew up in England, the son of Kindertransport Jews. His parents sent him to a proper English school (where bullying was a cherished tradition) in the hope he would gain the British identity their German accents could never allow them to achieve. Kolman is a combat veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, and insists that the play is not totally autobiographical.
The play’s Rose family (their name is anglicized from the German original) is financially successful in London, and sends their son, Paul, to an uptight established institution. The atmosphere is so conformist that the headmaster (Bob Heath) rails against hippie clothing and haircuts, while a teacher tells the boys that a proper Englishman would never say “I can’t get no satisfaction” but rather “I remain dissatisfied despite my best efforts.” The school, rather unwillingly, admits Jews and Muslims under a strict quota system. When racial violence breaks out, the headmaster’s only concern is for the school’s – and his own – reputation.
The play features a star performance by Kirsten Quinn as the mother who holds her Jewish family together. As a successful refugee, she still misses the home country and language, despite the fact that friends and relatives are dead. But what are the choices? Return to Germany, where they would still be unwelcome; remain in Britain so their son, who hides his Jewish identity, can become a true Englishman; or move to Israel, where the Arabs will any day “drive the Jews into the Sea”? Similar problems face immigrants today, but the uniqueness of Kolman’s story, set at the moment of the Six-Day War, creates a challenging theatrical event highlighted by Quinn’s sincerity.
The cast is all first-rate. Heath and Kyle Fennie convey the proper stodginess as the teachers. Ian Agnew touchingly portrays the conflicted father, with Tyler Brennan as the son who suffers beatings from assailants he refuses to name. “In Nazi Germany,” the mother reflects, “everyone was willing to talk.”
The second act balances the equation with a potent scene involving Pakistani refugees. This family’s father, a successful doctor (played by Eric Cover), not only discovers that his son Abdul (Jay Romero) has instigated racial violence but is gradually becoming radicalized. Each one cites The Koran as inspiration. This is an argument that continues word-for-word in our modern world. Susanne Sulby is the dialect coach that keeps all of these worlds clearly delineated.
Seagull Productions has given the play a fine mounting. Rebecca Dwight’s costumes balance the stoic school with the hipper outside world. Designer Sebesky has created an impressive two-story monument to conformity that resembles a gothic cathedral, and also serves as a screen for the many projections. However, the floorplan has some problems, as a stairway and a rarely used bedroom take up half of the limited stage space, while the most used location, the Roses’ living room, is too tiny for director Allen Radway to stage scenes in comfortably. Hopefully future productions will correct this.
And there should be future productions, which should refine some of the rough edges in Kolman’s play. The play’s dialogue is sometimes repetitious and scenes could be effectively condensed. There are many changes of location, but the conflicts often fail to build properly to an effective curtain line for the many scenes. And we need to better establish a relationship between the two families, perhaps by giving us more scenes between Paul and Abdul; currently they only appear together once, in a confusing flashback.
But the unusual location, story and characters are solid. This world premiere is highly recommended.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with an intermission.
The Roses in June plays through Saturday, July 1, 2017, and is presented by Seagull Productions, performing at Plays and Players Theatre – 1714 Delancey Place, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.