The Dressmaker’s Secret, which opened this week at 59E59 Theaters, is set in Romania in 1963. Like any notable drama, however, its themes largely transcend these geographic and temporal boundaries. Loosely adapted from the novel, Leaving — Memories of Romania, by Mihai Grunfeld, the play depicts the profound and enduring anguish from which individuals suffer when narcissistic, dictatorial, authoritarian rulers misuse their power to limit fundamental freedoms, demand unyielding loyalty, promote intolerance, and provoke international conflict. Then as now, when rulers with these flawed character traits take control of a nation, the people commonly pay a dire price.
This was certainly the case in Romania. Still reeling from the staggering death toll and destruction from World Wat II, during which Romania initially fought alongside the Nazis, participated in the genocide of both Jews and Roma, and later switched sides and joined the Allies, this unfortunate nation soon became a pawn in the geopolitical collision of ideologies that followed. Soon after the war, Romania was occupied by the Soviet Union, and, by the early 1950’s, the Communists had taken complete control of the country. The Romanian government suppressed political freedoms and ruthlessly crushed any dissent. The secret police restricted all aspects of social life, and millions were killed or imprisoned. Still, despite the dangers inherent in defying the regime, many Romanians joined the anti-Communist resistance, which continued to organize, oppose, and even attack government forces for many years. During this period, opposing loyalties and antagonistic allegiances developed, and Romanian society became deeply fractured and cynical.
The four characters in The Dressmaker’s Secret each reveal the various yet similarly painful wounds from this tumultuous and turbulent period.
As the play opens, we feel the deep sadness and despair of the main character, Maria (Tracy Sallows), as she bends forlornly over her Soviet style sewing machine, one of the very few possessions in the meager and dimly lit room she shares with her teenage son, Robi (Bryan Burton). The origins of Maria’s misery are soon revealed. During the war, while involved in a relationship with a Romanian officer, she falls deeply in love with someone else—a Jewish man—who’s soon taken by the Nazis and put to death in a concentration camp. During this time, Maria gets pregnant with her son and for the next nineteen years hides the truth about the boy’s father, steadfastly maintaining he was an officer who died during the war. As the play unfolds, the Romanian officer, Robert (Robert S. Gregory), who’s spent the last twenty years living in West Berlin, returns for the first time to Romania to visit his sister, Irma (Carolyn Lozlowski), and to confess to Maria it was he who turned her lover over to the Nazi’s in a moment of jealous rage. Maria has news for Robert as well; she has a son, conceived at the end of their relationship, but is it his son? That’s The Dressmaker’s Secret.
Overall, The Dressmaker’s Secret is a commendable play. The conflicts between the characters are skillfully developed, and the plot unfolds intriguingly. Tracy Sallows does an admirable job playing a complex character, and the acting is generally sound. Still, at times the actor’s movements seem awkward, and Bryan Burton tends to yell out lines for no apparent reason. And while the script is compelling, the dialogue seems to drag from time to time (and please lose the line about how Robi must learn English; he’s speaking English!). Otherwise, the plot is weighty, the performance is satisfying, and it’s an appropriate time for us to grapple with the human costs of autocratic rule.