Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Subject Was Roses"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Joe Coyne

“The Subject Was Roses”

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter A Carey

Playwright Frank D. Gilroy
Director Eric C. Engel

Set Design Jeremy Barnett
Light Design Jeff Benish
Costume Design Molly Trainer
Sound Design Fay Gerbes
Properties Design Theresa Melito
Anna Maria Melito
Stage Manager Nicole Jesson Cast

John Cleary .......... Robert Walsh
Nettie Cleary .......... Judith McIntyre
Timmy Cleary .......... David Hale

“And some roses for Mr. Gilroy, please. I’m sure you don’t even want to hear about “The Subject Was Roses” let alone get up the energy to go see it. The season is late, and things are wrapped for the summer. The play has no stars to speak of, though it has actors to applaud. It has, as a matter of fact, only three actors, and that means just about what you imagine it does. The play is a small one, often a quiet one. But, if possible, clear your heads and pretend that late May and a low budget and no ballyhoo don’t matter, for Frank Gilroy’s “The Subject was Roses” is quite the most interesting new American play to be offered on Broadway this season.

Well that is how Walter Kerr started his review in the New York Herald Tribune in May of 1964 and I might as well steal much of it for it applies to the current Gloucester Stage Company production continuing through August 25th. Collect your energy and enjoy what is the best production I have seen this year. There is a depth to this play not available in most productions: three honorable people trying to share their lives: a simple story of how it may be possible to change.

The events take place over a two day period in 1946. The Cleary’s of the Bronx; a mother and father celebrate the safe return of their son, a returning war veteran who has been away for three years. The father gives thanks for a son alive and well, not like a neighbor’s son who did not return. The characters are on eggshells for these initial scenes. They know expressions have a way of coming our wrong or being misinterpreted. They are tentative. The former familial relationships appear to be returning rapidly: a continuation of the cold war of emotions. This family has some secrets. Despite their love for each other, they do not touch. They cannot touch. There is something going on and no one is willing to tell us what has happened, what is happening, if anything. The mounting tension seeps in, covers the stage, then occupies the entire space.

These people love each other in their limited ways. The mother and father have differences of religion, of upbringing and of status. Much of the time they do not get along. Things have happened. With their son, they speak a dialect and engage in rituals practiced by this one family, but which can be clearly understood by all of us. We watch and with each mention of a specific topic: atheism, church going, net worth, Jews, dances, baseball, relatives, guilt: bells ring loudly in our memories. With each character’s advance towards another, space perceived as badly needed is taken. They share quality moments inching toward the chance to share quality lives. At times the characters travel to worlds that might have been: life with a former suitor, travels to Brazil, a stage career. They reflect on their past choices but quickly return to try and resolve differences in their current worlds of coffee, summer cottages: of living together.

Frank Gilroy who received the Pulitzer, the Tony and the Drama Critics award in 1965 for “Roses” admits to the autobiographical nature of the play, albeit his insight came in 1960 or so twenty years after his return from the war. His storytelling contains a richness of detail and color within a tiny sliver of a plot. A sliver of a splinter which gets into our skin and requires us to deal with it. He has followed one of his rules of writing: stay with the jab and do not go for the knockout punch. I understand this family through reflection on my family. The small, specific content of the Cleary’s conversations magnifies their real world and explodes into mine. It is also true that through the Cleary’s I have received additional pieces of the puzzle enabling me to decode my family makeup, their silences, their avoidances, their contrite love.

David Hale is a major find. As Timmy, the returning veteran, he is the moving party for change. Timmy works to control his emotions and to not fall back to his prior behavior. Mr. Hale is in training at the Actors’ Studio and appears very comfortable in this role. The pitch of his voice wonderfully betrays the improvised nature of Timmy’s intentions. You hear his search for the right words to say to his father, the struggle to not further alienate his mother. His dance scene with Timmy’s mother exudes caring and releases an energy that may not have been apparent during his military career. Timmy admits he never volunteered during the war, but he now holds the realization it will take action, not passiveness to find peace within the family.

Throughout the play Mr. Gilroy does not rely on long dialogues or explanations. His choice of a few words carry the moment. You watch Hale’s jaw struggle into a closed position as Timmy absorbs some new information, as Timmy struggles to regain his altered view of the world. Mr. Hale underacts delightfully. (if there is such an expression)

Judy McIntyre as Nettie draws you into her silenced nature. The outside world does not have an inkling of Nettie’s dissatisfaction. It is only in the special family domain where Nettie can express her anger. Ms. McIntyre delivers the lines with facial disclosures and the tilt of her head: radiant smiles and the softest welcome at the long awaited first breakfast; barking out brief projectile verbal slaps, teeth frozen together.

Nettie does much with her silences which she inflicts on the son and the husband. Ms. McIntyre capture’s Nettie’s trodden and resigned nature. It is a remarkable visual transformation as the diminutive Ms. McIntyre alters and opens up physically to Nettie’s possibility of happiness.

Robert Walsh warms us with a father who has but a fourth grade education and is limited by his adoption of the Irish immigrant expectations and shortcomings. He is a better man than some of his actions indicate. Mr. Walsh has the run of the stage moving to all the corners hoping that somewhere, at last, will be something John Cleary can understand. There are sudden swings of the father’s view and Mr. Walsh increases his physical size as needed: welcoming in the world with arms thrown out or small, withdrawn and sullen at the kitchen table. His body changes precede the delivery of the lines and make the character fast of feeling while slow of articulation.

During a talkback session with the playwright, Frank Gilroy pointed out that it appears that someone might actually be living on the set (designed by Jeremy Barnett). A simple kitchen for the prewar times with the essential kitchen table. There is the smell of toast, the cooking of waffles, with eggs and juice for all. And there is a family that lives there. Eric Engel has managed to weave the three actors into a unit. The anger, the yelling, the drunkenness, the violence, and the love are all there: the unit is never out of character, never out of pain and never beyond love.

And please, some more roses for Mr. Gilroy and still more roses for the entire artistic team.

Joe Coyne

“The Subject Was Roses” (7 - 25 August)
267 East Main Street GLOUCESTER MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide