The Promise of a Rose Garden

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By Dustin Spence.

Directed by Elyse Dawson.

Produced by Babes with Blades Theatre Company.

Playing at City Lit Theater, Chicago.

Play about Female Marines Shows Promise, Needs Work.

For some reason, the military often proves to be a very difficult topic for the contemporary American theatre. Non-representational dramatic techniques, such as those termed “applied theatre” in academic settings, often have more success capturing soldiers’ experience, and tend to directly quote them (Rivendell’s Women at War, is an example of this). Dustin Spence’s world premiere play The Promise of a Rose Garden, produced by Babes with Blades, depicts a hypothetical near future, and therefore, fictional events based on commonly held perceptions of soldiers, including its female protagonists. The play’s form is a traditional narrative with a few expressionistic elements in an otherwise naturalistic representation, which might have worked well, but, in its current form, it is too far on the scale of exaggeration while trying to seriously depict the psychological consequences of military service.

Recently, the military announced that female marines would have the opportunity to take the 84-day Infantry Officer Course. In the world of The Promise of a Rose Garden, three have passed, and the two who are still alive are overseeing a group of four young women determined to become commanders of elite units. But Captain Josephine Rockford (Maureen Yasko), the lower-ranking of the two female marine commanders, has recently been haunted by apparitions of black-clad angels promising her death. Her behavior is an issue for the four younger women, but they fall apart under their own pride and defensiveness. When a war unexpectedly breaks out, they all get deployed anyway, and a disaster occurs which gets Rockford sent home, and her life continues to fall apart.

Since this is a Babes with Blades show, the soldiers do about ten things in Act I which should get them court martialed, including a major and a lieutenant engaging in a brutal fight which requires outside intervention to break up. Not that scuffles are unknown in the military, but Act I only takes place over a day, and in that day, the number of beatdowns the characters inflict on each other is alarmingly high and makes them appear grossly undisciplined. Throughout most of Act II, Captain Rockford supplies examples of why PTSD and combat veterans are so stigmatized, as she proves a lethal threat to everyone around her, in the field as well as at home. This is a difficult subject to handle, and having phantoms dressed in Halloween grim reaper robes hesitantly whispering “This is your test,” and “You’re going to diiiie” doesn’t prove quite as effective as director Elyse Dawson apparently hoped at conveying the experience of mental illness.

Generally, the actors themselves do a good job bringing their characters to life. Charlie Baker stepped in to play Lieutenant Nichols, a role normally played by Patti Moore, with Arti Ishak, Sam Long, and Izis Mollinedo playing the remaining aspiring commanders. Their use of Rachel Flesher’s fight choreography is excellent, and we get a clear sense of their relationships and what motivates them. However, despite the copious amount of profanity they use, several of the actors struggle to deliver it with the casualness their characters would. Given the angels’ uncertainty over their lines, that may have simply been due to the soldiers also being under-rehearsed, in which case they will likely improve over the show. But it comes across in performance as if there’s something put-on about the women’s cussing, which somewhat undermines the play’s purpose. So, too, do moments of clichéd dialogue, such as two surviving female graduates hero-worshipping the third, who died in combat. At each moment in The Promise of a Rose Garden, it is clear what the artists were trying to do, but they only occasionally achieve it in full. Still, the show contains lots of exciting fights, and some interesting character moments.

Somewhat Recommended.

Jacob Davis

3jacob.davis@gmial.com

Reviewed August 6, 2016.

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see The Promise of a Rose Garden’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at City Lit Theater, 1020 W Bryn Mawr Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $22, with discounts for students and seniors; to order call 773-904-0391 or visit babeswithblades.org. Performances are Thurasdays0Satrudays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through September 10. Running time is two hours with one intermission.