Neil Simon’s “Rose and Walsh” is the last of the playwright’s work in his long and illustrious career. The play originally premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in 2003. Later that year, it was produced off-Broadway with minor changes to the script and a new title, “Rose’s Dilemma”, with both scripts considered his last. In the current production of “Rose and Walsh” at freeFall Theatre in St. Pete, director Eric Davis and his creative team have birthed such a fine production that they make this play, arguably, Neil Simon’s best work.
The play begins in the middle of the night in the Long Island seaside home of Rose Steiner (played with great humanity by Stephanie Dunnam), a celebrated writer who hasn’t produced work in years, facing financial hardship and declining health and mental acuity. As she descends the stairs to her living room, she frantically calls for Walsh (played commandingly by Patrick Sullivan), her decades-old romantic companion and a celebrated writer himself. She believes he’s outside on the beach. As Walsh enters, Rose admonishes him for not being in bed with her when she awoke, admitting she was never good at being alone.
The dialogue crackles with humor, love, and frustration that only occurs between two old lovers, but we learn Walsh is a ghost from Rose’s memories. The audience wonders if Walsh is a paranormal visitor or a part of Rose’s coping with her diminishing mind.
Walsh died years before, yet he’s alive and boisterous – and concerned about her well-being and tells Rose he’s “retiring” from visiting her in two weeks, urging her complete his unfinished manuscript, which Walsh says will be a gold mine for Rose. All Rose wants is to spend the two weeks with Walsh before he leaves forever. She begs him to come to the bedroom, but Walsh won’t relent. She resigns herself, saying, “Sex with a dead man isn’t half as good as what I was led to believe.”
Dunnam is a force of nature, portraying Rose with acute detail, humor, and compassion. Sullivan’s Walsh has so much life and passion that I forgot his character was a figment of Rose’s imagination.
Arlene, Rose’s live-in caregiver, (played with care and nuance by Georgia Mallory Guy), knows of Rose’s conversations with Walsh, at times siding with Walsh in arguments. Her love for Rose offers its own emotional story.
The ghostwriter that Rose enlists for help is the wise-cracking Gavin Clancy, a one-time dime novelist who has abandoned his writing and developed a cynical attitude towards being able to write again. Robert Teasdale plays Gavin with razor-sharp wit and an engaging charm; you can’t help but root for him, despite his hard edges. It’s a pleasure to see Teasdale on stage again.
The play revolves around the love story of Rose and Walsh. Yet there are other love stories within as well. Each represents a different stage in a life of love and loss. Each is touching, beautiful, and funny. These stories demonstrate the need for human connection and show that love can transform and transcend, whether the love is real or fantasy.
This is Neil Simon at his best. Later in the play, a scene between all four actors is such classic Neil Simon comedy: pitch-perfect, comedic gold. These top-shelf actors give everything to breathe great life to the last written words of one of America’s best and beloved playwrights. freeFall proves once again it knows what audiences need and want with this swan song to a great American playwright.