Photograph by David Allen
Hard times: Nehemiah (Ian Leonard) and Dessa (Carly Hughes) confront a racial divide in the antibellum South in 'Dessa Rose.'
A Rose by Another Name
TheatreWorks tries to make a musical do double duty in 'Dessa Rose'
By Marianne Messina
Dessa Rose, the musical currently running at TheatreWorks, has its heart in a good place. And the two lead characters, abused slave Dessa Rose (Carly Hughes) and forcefully polished Southern belle Ruth (Linda Mugleston), do ultimately bring out the admirable power of their unlikely pre-Civil War relationship. But they have to go through a lot of confusion and inconsistency to do it. Dessa's brand "around her private parts" migrates ever so slightly in later scenes to her thigh; Ruth's apprehension at the runaway slaves on her property ("Who are these strangers?") shifts without warning to she "takes them in."
We're told a lot of things in song that we should be shown in characterization—that these are strong women, for example. And the characters are almost totally defined by what happens to them. In rapid succession the first act sketches the pivotal events in both women's lives—loves, losses, births, horrors, betrayals—accompanied by a series of perfunctory songs. It's simply hard to hook up with any of the characters. The singing is quite fine, especially Hughes' emotive, sometimes cracking voice.
In Act 1, the most powerful connections grow out of our brief glimpses of the aged Dessa and Ruth (Hughes and Mugleston, shifting in and out of old age). The actors ignite as older women, speaking the harsh and humorous truths of a retrospective viewpoint. Dessa remembers being jealous of Ruth: "Her white milk flowing through my baby's body." Perhaps the play simply tries to do too much, but it succeeds in some things. Though it shies away from characterization, the language and content don't shy away from the hard history the way musicals love to do.
The lyrics in one song echo another as the races describe each other's eyes in ugly terms, "empty, sickly, watery" and "rheumy." As Adam Nehemiah (Ian Leonard) writes Dessa's story for a book—"bloody tales are good for sales"—sexual tension creeps into his voyeuristic interest in her. Though confronting this sort of ambivalence is a worthy endeavor, squeezing it into song simply chops up the subtleties with a cookie cutter, and the overall dependence on bad-guy/good-guy short cuts burnt them to a crisp. Some of the singing numbers are crafty, like the spoon, can and washboard sequence. Then a four-part number, where each voice represents a different yearning piled one on top of the other, reveals how the threads of humanity are woven into a time and a social system like this. Later, in a sensual duet between Dessa and her killed husband, Kaine (Carmichael Blankenship), all the production elements work again. The singing pours and slithers, the lighting is soft but crisp.
Unfortunately, the same low-key lighting is the norm in an overall production (from a generally stellar production team) that doesn't offer much for the eye. Whether in the fields, a Charleston, S.C., ballroom or a Southern mansion, the dun environment basically looks like the inside of a barn. For a change of place, we get the odd set piece, in matching brown, everything from cradles, beds, chests and fences to curtains on drop-down windows, all brown.
Still and all, in this musical's last 20 minutes or so, with the plot points out of the way, the strength of the women does finally peak out and speak on its own. And it only takes a glimpse of this raw power of the human being, overcoming incredible conditioning and programming to forge a friendship, to strike that heart-felt chord musicals strive for.
Dessa Rose, a TheatreWorks production, plays Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through Oct. 29 at the Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $35-$62. (650.903.6000)
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