The world premiere of The Dressmaker’s Secret, based on a novel by Mihai Grunfeld and directed by Roger Hendricks Simon, is currently at 59E59 Theaters. Presented by the Simon Studio in association with Amanagion, LLC, it boasts a cast which includes Bryan Burton, who has appeared opposite John Turturro in HBO’s The Night Of; Robert S. Gregory, who has acted in The Tempest and Comedy of Errors and many other productions; Tracy Sallows, who has appeared in The Audience on Broadway with Helen Mirren; and Caralyn Kozlowski, who has appeared in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Prodigal Son.
The Dressmaker’s Secret is a fictional work tangentially related to the Holocaust in Hungary, and set in Communist Romania in the early 1960s. It is a story about how secrets and unresolved conflicts (as a result of the Holocaust) negatively impact relationships. We see this in the relationship between single mother Maria (Tracy Sallows), who struggles to survive as an impoverished dressmaker, and her disgruntled 19-year-old son Robi (Bryan Burton), an electrician. And we note that the secrets and obfuscations have imploded relationships among Maria and two others, her former lover Robert (played by Robert G. Gregory) and her ex-friend Irma (Caralyn Kozlowski), Robert’s brother.
Playwrights Sarah Levine Simon and Mihai Grunfeld spin the arc of development slowly. Maria and Robi are in conflict over their circumstances. Robi, who yearns to be a Westerner, particularly feels the oppression of the Romanian police state and wishes for a better life. When he argues with his mother about his father’s identity, which Maria has kept secret from him, we understand Maria lives in a fog of pain and repression, emotions that must be released before she and her son can move forward with love in a productive way.
Revelations unfold after Irma seeks out Maria to make a dress for her. We learn that Maria and Robert, who was in the Hungarian army, were lovers during the Holocaust, that Maria took up with a Jewish man, Zoli, and that Zoli was the wedge that separated Robert and Irma from Maria.
During Irma’s initial visit, Robi returns from work and Irma invites him to visit her, which he does despite his mother’s warnings. Searching for the truth about his mother and his parentage, Robi befriends Irma and learns that his mother was having affairs with two men around the same time. Which was his father, he wonders? Irma counsels Robi to ask his mother.
When Robert visits Irma on a trip from West Berlin, their conversations answer more of the questions we have about the clouded past. Irma confides that she was a Communist and that her husband had been tortured and subjected to typical show trials to prove his guilt. These revelations open the floodgates in Robert’s soul. Irma’s truths, including the information that Maria has a son which might be his, encourage Robert to visit his old love, Maria.
Maria initially is shocked and not pleased to see him, but Robert importunes her. His fervency to discover if Robi is his son softens her response. After revealing his own guilt about his treatment of Zoli during the last part of the war, Robert begs Maria for forgiveness and reconciliation. This scene is powerful and Gregory and Sallows do a fine job moving off the stone of recalcitrance into the territory of possible forgiveness and redemption.
At Maria’s questioning, Robert says he will be able to help Robi go to the West and become an engineer. However, it will mean a great sacrifice for Maria, who will most probably never see Robi again because he will be not be allowed to easily return to Romania.
Because of her underlying bonds of friendship with Irma, and Irma’s attempt to seek forgiveness, Maria’s hurt and bitterness dissolve and she forgives her friend. This renewal prompts Maria to finally reveal the truth about Zoli to Robi. As a final reconciliation and renewal of love between mother and son, Maria gives him Zoli’s memoirs of his time at the concentration camp, a bit of which he reads aloud and comments on. But does he embrace Zoli or Robert as his father? The play’s conclusion gives an interesting answer.
The plot, conflicts, and themes of The Dressmaker’s Secret are meaningful. However, the way they are delivered, primarily through exposition and explanation, is static. Also, some scenes appear extraneous because they further the play’s development only at a snail’s pace. Bits of dialogue may have been truncated to create more of the vibrance of reality. As a result acute action is sporadic, the audience engagement is hampered, the direction appears lethargic. Tightening or consolidating some of the scenes in the first act would intensify the conflict between mother and son and the actors would be freed to be more “in the moment.”
If the same were done in the second act, especially with scenes that do not further the ongoing conflict, the highpoint of the mother-and-son goodbyes would be poignant and heartfelt. And the themes of guilt, redemption, reconciliation, the vitality of truth’s revelations, love, and sacrifice would be empowered. At the performance I attended, the action dragged and I found my interest waning at times as the production took longer than the stated 90-minute duration. All things considered the artistic design (lighting, staging, sets, costumes, props) was adequate.
The Dressmaker’s Secret runs at 59E59 Theaters (59E59 Street) until 5 March 2017. Tickets are available online.