Nothing in the world of "Rose," a one-woman show now playing in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, is clear-cut.
Not the title character's recollections of her youth in a Ukrainian shtetl or her escape to Warsaw. Not the moral compromises facing those, like Rose, who escaped Warsaw through the sewers. And certainly not her full embrace of the Jewish tradition of constant questioning, which motivates this play-length narrative about surviving the 20th century's greatest horror.
But, in Rose's memory, certain things remain in permanent focus: a song sung decades ago in a Yiddish film; sun-splashed visions of the Atlantic City boardwalk; or the sweeping desert landscape of Israel. And in the Jewish Repertory Theatre's production of the show, Christina Rausa breathes life into those memories in a moving if somewhat unsure performance as a fictional Holocaust survivor who makes a new life for herself in America.
This is Rausa's second attempt at Martin Sherman's complex and often devastating narrative, which concentrates the post-World War II experiences of many European Jews into a single, vibrant character. It's also JRT co-founder Saul Elkin's second attempt since JRT first mounted the show in 2009.
This time, instead of opting for the straightforward approach of a storyteller, the pair is taking a more experiential approach to the material. They receive plenty of help from sound designer Tom Makar, Buffalo's peerless conjurer of scenes and sentiments. His work transports us into the dusty streets of the shtetl, the clamorous cafes of Warsaw and the open seas with a few well-chosen notes or sound effects.
This allows Rausa to live for moments inside the memories of her character, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor taking stock of her life and lamenting the fact that she "stinks of the last century."
To say that Rausa struggles in the role is not necessarily a knock on her performance. That's because her character also struggles to remember important moments from her life, always questioning whether she is recalling them as they occurred or mixing them with recollections of films or stories.
While there is clearly room for Rausa to become more comfortable in Rose's skin, the production thrives on the strength of Sherman's writing. It is both cold-eyed and humorous, straightforward and shot through with mysticism. And though it is suffused with Rose's regrets and her sadness over the incalculable losses she suffered, it maintains a momentum that carries audiences swiftly along to its lachrymose conclusion.
Though the script becomes a bit too mired in contemporary Israeli politics toward the end, it stands as a remarkable piece of storytelling.
With a few more performances, Rausa will no doubt do it justice.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
Runs through Feb. 25 in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville. Tickets are $10 to $38. Call 650-7626 or visit jewishrepertorytheatre.com.