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Friday, July 24, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Scent Of The Roses' -- South African Drama Lacks Dynamism, Is Grounded By Earthbound Writing

Seattle Times Theater Critic

Theater review "Scent of the Roses" by Lisette Lecat Ross. Directed by Gordon Edelstein at A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, Tuesday-Sunday through Aug. 16. $10-38. 206- 292-7676.

A deep tide of shame and regret courses through the writing of many liberal white South Africans.

It runs through Nadine Gordimer's short stories about the byzantine ironies of her nation's four decades of brutal racial separation. It suffuses Athol Fugard's plays of black and white relationships undermined by rage and guilt. And it dominates "Scent of the Roses," a new drama by Lisette Lecat Ross now having its world premiere at A Contemporary Theatre, with celebrated actress Julie Harris in the lead.

Fugard once called himself "a classic example of the impotent white liberal." But in "Scent of the Roses," an elderly woman in the post-apartheid era of truth and reconciliation seizes upon a way to rectify the moral cowardice of her youth.

The scenario neatly constructed by Ross, a South African native now residing in the United States, reflects on the vicissitudes of old age and the passions of youth, as well as the complicated legacy of black oppression. It is a compelling tale, with a couple of sharp, Gordimer-like twists.

But the method of telling is laborious. There's an essential lack of theatrical dynamism here that a dual time scheme, an elaborate mounting by ACT artistic director Gordon Edelstein and a touching performance by Harris cannot mask.

Harris portrays Annalise Morant, a Johannesburg widow determined to keep some big secrets from her meddling but self-absorbed adult children. She's hiding a medical condition that seems ominous. (Is there any other kind in a play?) And she keeps private a momentous relationship in her youth with the black painter of a pastoral landscape that still hangs in her living room - a work symbolically titled, "The Sleeping Lady."

Shifting time zones and sometimes overlapping them, "Scent of the Roses" shows us a woman trying to awaken an unresolved aspect of her past as she confronts mortality in the present.

It helps that the naive small-town girl Annalise once was is luminously enacted by Jessalyn Gilsig. Stiff at first, Ntare Mwine eventually warms to his role as Julius Van George, the talented artist who meets young Annalise just as he's about to seek a better life abroad.

Meanwhile, Harris's aged Annalise (who, inexplicably, has lost her South African accent) plays gentle Queen Lear to her bickering children: the relentless nag Imogen (Jeanne Paulsen), politically conservative Nigel (Jay Patterson) and Cordelia-like Kate (Kate Forbes), who's nicer but distracted by her own problems.

As the agent of Annalise's redemption, treasured Seattle acting veteran William Biff McGuire exhibits his usual grace and flair. Savoring the rapport between those two consummate troupers, McGuire and Harris, is a real pleasure.

Yet often "Scent of the Roses" is grounded by its earthbound writing and construction. The dialogue can get repetitive and stilted. And the plotting relies too much on phone messages and manipulations of a faithful servant (Kirsten Williamson).

While attractive (especially that abundant rose garden), Thomas Lynch's expansive sets (nicely lit by Peter Kaczorowski) contribute to the choppy pacing. Sometimes they amount to overkill, as does the distracting detail of waiters pushing around carts in a restaurant scene.

More crucially, this is a character study that doesn't tell us enough about its characters. Why is Imogen so insufferable? What draws the art dealer Alistair to an initially chilly Annalise - the hope of a sale or a friendship?

Though seen at several critical points in her life, Annalise retains a certain vagueness too. Who was she between the single daring act of her youth, and the deflations of her old age?

Harris has one pay-off monologue that she delivers with such an intensity of feeling it takes your breath away. And yet the script leaves us with a faintly etched woman who pulls off her bravest move from beyond the grave.

One scene in "Scent of the Roses" does depart from form to reveal something pungent yet ineffable. It is when Annalise receives an unexpected visit from Tshipi (Bobby Bermea), the son of a former servant. In this truly sinister encounter, fear mingles with guilt, danger with sympathy. The result is a very volatile and discomfiting moment - a moment that, somehow, seems uniquely South African.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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