Dessa Rose

Apple Tree Theatre

If nothing else, you have to admire Dessa Rose for the risks it takes. Composer Stephen Flaherty and librettist Lynn Ahrens have adapted an unsparing 1986 novel by Sherley Anne Williams, who weaves together the stories of two real-life people from the antebellum south, one a pregnant slave, the other an abandoned wife. This is hardly the sort of musical popular now in our culture, which favors thinly plotted jukebox revues a la Mamma Mia! and shows based on popular comic movies or cult favorites like Hairspray, The Producers, and Spamalot. And Apple Tree Theatre has made a brave choice by producing a script at the holidays that deals with rape, torture, murder, and all the other atrocities of the “peculiar institution.”

For her novel, Williams drew on the story of a female slave in Kentucky who in 1829 was sentenced to be hanged for leading an uprising on a coffle, a chain gang of slaves headed to market, but was spared until she could deliver her baby–a valuable asset, of course. Williams imagines that this woman escaped and met a white woman who turned her North Carolina farm into a sanctuary for runaway slaves in 1830, after her husband left her. The novelist not only indicts slavery (duh) but looks unblinkingly at the roots of America’s unease with interracial romance and at white writers’ tendency to speak for their black subjects. Like the novel, the musical includes a smug white journalist, Adam Nehemiah, who’s writing a book on slave rebellions and tries to make the imprisoned Dessa Rose talk by implying that her story will be forgotten unless she cooperates.

Perhaps “bloody tales are good for sales,” as Nehemiah says. But something of the novel’s waspishness is lost in translation to the stage even though Ahrens and Flaherty stick close to Williams’s story. This is the duo that won a Tony for the soaring score of Ragtime, Terrence McNally’s 1998 adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel. And a few numbers here, like those in the earlier show, capture the injustice and suffering of a world in flux. But Dessa Rose is far more modest in terms of cast size and conception, which limits the songs’ impact, and the recitatives are somewhat monotonous in rhythm and tempo.

Most frustrating, however, is that the narrative is never fleshed out the way Doctorow’s tale is in Ragtime. And Ahrens’s book makes you long for McNally’s sense of irony, particularly in the first act. It’s hard to imagine an audience that would think slavery anything but reprehensible, but Ahrens spends a lot of time and energy on the horrors Dessa Rose has experienced. Still, the first act’s best scenes are the best in the show, as the two women find themselves doing things they never could have imagined before meeting. (Like Wicked, this musical focuses on the friendships between women and not on romance.) When Dessa Rose escapes and is brought to the white woman’s farm, where she delivers her baby, the owner, Ruth, decides to nurse the infant because the child’s mother is too ill and malnourished to do so. Later, when Dessa Rose confronts Ruth about her childhood relationship with a woman she knew only as “Mammy,” Ruth is ashamed and grief stricken. “I never knew one true thing about the person I loved most in this world,” she says. The revelation is central to one of Williams’s points: that slavery stripped African-Americans of their true identities. The first act ends with the overly earnest but effective “Twelve Children,” in which Dessa Rose enumerates her siblings who were sold or killed.

If the first act focuses too hard on Dessa Rose’s right to rebel, the second is The Sting set in the deep south. Ruth agrees to help her newly acquired African-American lover, Nathan, and the other runaways on her farm with their scheme to obtain money and freedom. She’ll sell them, then they’ll run away and meet her at an agreed-upon location, and they’ll repeat the grift until they have enough money to light out for the territory, as Huck Finn would say. This twist in the tale cries out for a more nuanced approach: the runaways’ and Ruth’s glee at working the system isn’t balanced by any sense of fear given the risks they’re taking, and Ruth is weirdly comfortable selling her “property”–even her lover. When Dessa Rose helps a drunken Ruth fight off the advances of an older white man they’re staying with, the former slave tells the audience that she finally sees how her “mistress” is as vulnerable to the predations of men as she is. But we don’t see this shift in perspective in the women’s interactions.

Director Mark E. Lococo has cast Apple Tree’s midwest premiere of the 2005 show well. As Dessa Rose, Karla L. Beard is flinty, funny, and occasionally heartbreaking: she delivers “Twelve Children” with all the emotion it demands. Susan Moniz skillfully negotiates the role of Ruth, a 20-year-old with lingering dreams of aristocratic privilege who evolves from naive young bride to sexually adventurous slave coconspirator. The moment when she offers to nurse Dessa Rose’s baby is stunning, echoing the close of The Grapes of Wrath. And Nehemiah is well played by Sean Allan Krill. But Lococo’s staging and Marla Lampert’s choreography are a bit too flat-footed to energize the score’s strands of gospel, call-and-response work songs, and pop anthems.

One remarkable staging choice suggests how good this show could have been. When Dessa Rose furiously files away at her ankle chains to escape from prison, the other slaves cover up the sound by shoveling, hammering, and banging on pots–even as the unctuous Nehemiah tries to get information out of them. Here in miniature are Williams’s key points: the cleverness and courage required to escape slavery, the cooperative spirit of African-Americans who were often separated from their blood families but formed new ties, and the right of enslaved people to tell their own stories. As she notes in the introduction to her novel, “Slavery eliminated neither heroism nor love; it provided occasions for their expressions.” Ahrens and Flaherty make an admirable attempt to honor that heroism and love, yet their dutifully narrated story doesn’t come fully alive onstage.

When: Through 12/31: Tue-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8:30 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: Apple Tree Theatre, 595 Elm, Highland Park

Price: $35-$45

Info: 847-432-4335

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.