ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Subject Was Roses
This beloved play, set in 1946, won a Pulitzer for its author. It has only three characters: Patriarch John Cleary (Martin Sheen); Nettie Cleary, the mother (Frances Conroy); and Timmy Cleary, the son (Brian Geraghty). It begins the morning after Timmy comes back from the war and finds himself in the kind of family war he's been embroiled in all of his 21 years. When he went away from home for the first time, he found to his amazement thathe was never sick. The play explores the subject of that sickness.
John is an exuberant Irishman, whose hardscrabble childhood is hidden under a veneer of superficial charm. He's the bride at every wedding but it's only skin deep. He has never told his family he loved them.
Nettie is thoroughly unlikable throughout Act I. A bitter woman, she's turned from her husband to her son. When John reaches out to her after a night of carousing on the town, she rejects him angrily. He responds by telling her he hadn't bought her roses after all; it was their son. She smashes the vase containing the roses.
We see the reasons for that rejection in a lifetime of parsimonious doling out of money and in the unheated lake house. Deep in Act II comes Nettie's monologue: about her loving father who was a musician, about her many suitors but only John had the spark that promised success, about the Great Recession that dashed their hopes, about John as the handsome young man she remembered.
And then there's Timmy who, as his father ruefully says, left a boy and came back a man. Sometimes John forgets that when his temper explodes. Sometimes he doesn't understand it, as when Timmy tells him he left the Catholic Church.
Timmy has more in common with his family than he thinks. He sings with his father. He dances with his mother. But it's time to move on and he has an offer from a classmate with an apartment which brings the play to an explosive climax.
They called plays like this "kitchen sink" theater in the days this was written but Gilroy's way with words and the depth with which he draws his characters defies easy definition. The son leaving home and the grieving parents are universal themes.
It's easy to see why Martin Sheen wanted to revisit this play. It has two great roles for men and he's probably the only actor in history to play them both. Blustering, bullying but quick to fold, Sheen show there's not much difference between the Latino and the Irish. Frances Conroy is realistic and cruel initially but softens as the play goes on and she has her boy to confide in once more. As Timmy, Brian Geraghty displays a delightful flair for song and dance. His final scene with Sheen is heartbreaking. Neil Pepe directs with a feel for nuance. Walt Spangler designed the warm set.
The Subject Was Roses combines the feel of an era with the timelessness of an American classic.