The sweet smell of success
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Gary Zeidner

For anyone who has ever cast aspersions on smaller, community theatre-level theatre companies simply because of their lack of size, funding and sophistication, I have found the antidote to your cynicism. Though many such companies do put their audiences through the wringer by choosing to present the most obvious, pedestrian productions–and then doing so in the most hackneyed manner–every once in a while a diminutive, local company takes a risk, tries something new and knocks the ball not just out of the park but into the stratosphere.

The Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden hits this proverbial home run with its current production, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Based on the book of the same title, Rose Garden is the fictionalized, autobiographical account of the author’s struggle with schizophrenia as a teenaged girl in the 1950s. Given the book’s popularity (it has received 17 printings since 1964) and the fact that a movie adaptation has already been produced, I was surprised to learn that this is the first stage adaptation ever undertaken. It is worth noting that not some off-Broadway group–nor even the Denver Center Theatre Company–produced this world-class, world-premiere piece; a Colorado playwright, Walter L. Newton, and the Miners Alley Playhouse created this masterful work in their modest theatre on the main drag in Golden.

The story of Rose Garden is as touching as it is simple. After suffering abuses, including anti-Semitism, as a young girl, Deborah Klein (Karalyn Pytel) creates an alternate world to which to escape. This world, known as Yr, is ruled by the god-like creatures Anterrabae (Clyde Sacks), Lactamaeon (Chris Bleau) and Idat (Priscilla Young). Over time, Deborah retreats so far and so often into Yr that her ability to exist in the real world becomes compromised. Her parents (played by Dale Tagtmeyer and Karen Kargel) finally institutionalize her hoping she will receive the treatment she requires. Deborah gets very lucky by being assigned to Dr. Fried (Paige L. Larson) for treatment. Dr. Fried opposes the increasing tendency of psychiatry to turn to drug therapy to treat serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and instead champions intensive psychotherapy as the preferred treatment model.

For years, Deborah works with Dr. Fried to overcome her schizophrenia. Her struggle is not always pretty and involves self-mutilation as well as outwardly directed violent outbursts. However, over time and with Dr. Fried’s help, Deborah is able to regain control of her life. The gods of Yr still bellow their threats, but Deborah is able to silence them and resume her life outside the institution as a functioning member of society.

The Miners Alley Playhouse’s Rose Garden raises the bar for local and regional theatre productions. Virtually every aspect of the production is spot on. Karalyn Pytel plays Deborah perfectly as an intelligent, sensitive young woman struggling with reality. Though this is the first time I have seen Ms. Pytel perform, I am certain it won’t be the last (and I am decidedly looking forward to the next). As Dr. Fried, Paige Larson also deserves much praise. Her German accent never falters, her characterization remains consistent throughout and, most importantly, she shows us the stalwart psychiatrist’s softer side as well. The interplay between these two actors is itself worth the price of admission.

The fine acting takes place in front of a simple but effective set that melds the illusory world of Yr with the Klein’s home and the various parts of the institution. The inhabitants of Yr spring to life not simply due to solid acting but because of their amazing costuming. Simple embellishments so completely transform three actors into otherworldly menaces that the deletion of minor costume elements drastically reduces their power and clearly signals Deborah’s continuing recovery.

The truest testament to the success of Rose Garden is that while I was reviewing the show in my mind and picking it apart detail by detail, I could easily imagine viewing it again years from now being performed by another theatre company in another city. Walter L. Newton and the Miners Alley Playhouse have brought forth a wonderful play with staying power for years to come.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden plays at the Miners Alley Playhouse, 1224 Washington St., Golden, through Nov. 13. For tickets or information, call 303-935-3044.