Rose smelling sweet in Traveling Jewish Theatre production

For her next role at Traveling Jewish Theatre, Naomi Newman will be benched.

Not that she did anything wrong. Playing the title character in the one-woman show “Rose,” Newman spends nearly the entire play sitting shiva on a bench.

“Rose,” by playwright Martin Sherman (“Bent,” “Mrs. Henderson Presents”) is the story of a shtetl-born woman who survives the Warsaw Ghetto and sojourns on to Atlantic City, a commune in Connecticut, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, and ends up a widowed grandmother in Miami Beach.

The play makes its Traveling Jewish Theatre premiere Sunday, Jan. 7, at TJT’s San Francisco stage.

Newman is no stranger to the one-woman-show format. Two seasons ago she starred in her own play, “Fall Down Get Up.” But she says the challenges of “Rose” are exceptionally daunting.

“There’s more text to memorize in this play than six plays put together,” says Newman. “There’s no singing or dancing or playing other characters. [Rose] is sitting on a bench and she stands up maybe three times. Fortunately the story is so compelling, the writing so excellent, it’s really the history of the Jewish people in the 20th century.”

Newman loves the title character for her unsentimental outlook, humor and capacity for change. “She emerges with spirit,” adds the actress. “In many ways it has a happy ending. She triumphs by staying alive and by keeping her sense of Jewish morality, Jewish justice.”

Joan Mankin, TJT associate artist and a longtime friend of Newman’s, is directing the play. She says the rapport between the two makes the creative process a joy.

“What’s great is Naomi’s tremendous knowledge of the world,” says Mankin. “She’s been through a lot just like Rose. I had this idea how the pivotal opening scene should work, and she said, ‘Joan, would you just get up there and do the scene as you would?’ And since I can’t ever turn down a part … “

For Mankin, whose resume includes the Pickle Circus and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, staging a play in which the character mostly sits poses its own challenges. “It’s interesting to translate physicality into other terms,” says Mankin. “Rose is always presenting something then undercutting it. Also she has this sense of being displaced, that she doesn’t belong anywhere. She always feels outside of things.”

In this production the two women reverse roles, as Newman directed Mankin in previous TJT productions of “See Under: Love” and “Berlin, Jerusalem and the Moon.” Says Newman, “I’m loving working with Joan. She knows just how to deal with text and what it requires.”

Newman continues work on her own original play “Torn Ribbons,” which probes the impact of war on individuals and society (earlier this season, TJT mounted a staged reading).

Newman says she likes to work “really hard” for six months of the year and take it easy the other six. Right now, she’s smack in the middle of the really hard six as she works to perfect the complex character of Rose who, by any other name, would prove as taxing.

“She’s a fabulous story teller,” says Newman of the character. “She tells stories in a way that is unusual, interesting, ironic and humorous at times, heartbreaking at other times. The challenge is to bring that all to life and keep the audience engaged.”

“Rose” plays 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, Jan. 4-28, at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., S.F.; Feb. 1-11 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View; and Feb. 15-25 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: $15-$44. Information: (415) 522-0786 ext. 2.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.