If it's hard to get the tone right in Chekhov (see the companion review of The Cherry Orchard), settling on an approach to Frank Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses is as daunting as deciding between paper and plastic.
Gilroy won the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for this work about a dysfunctional family, and so it must be a Serious Play. Yet much of it can be read as comic. The trouble is that the characters don't usually realize that they're being funny, and so the audience--to say nothing of the actors--constantly has to wonder: Is it OK to laugh at that?
Live Theatre Workshop usually emphasizes the humor, and even the campiness, in its chosen material, and indeed, its production of The Subject Was Roses reliably draws titters from the audience. Yet the actors and director Chuck Rankin never strain for laughs; they refuse to undercut the bitterness and anger behind most of the lines.
A Pulitzer Prize is no guarantee of longevity or even, really, value, but The Subject Was Roses has held up well over the past 40 years. It's set in 1946, as young Timmy Cleary comes home from the war. Before he was drafted, Timmy had been a sickly kid, the sort a tough father like John Cleary assumes will never amount to anything, despite the potentially stifling support of an over-protective mother like Nettie Cleary. But now that he's back, Timmy is fit, secure and ready for life--which is more than can be said for the Cleary marriage. John and Nettie play Timmy off against each other, as they always have, but now, Timmy won't have anything to do with his parents' conflicts. Hoping to patch things up between his folks, he impulsively buys a rose bouquet for his mother and persuades John to take credit for the purchase. Somehow, this precipitates a crisis that finally brings the family's conflicts into the open.
What, exactly, is the trouble between John and Nettie? It has something to do with sex, and with Nettie's attachment to her mother and her sister's retarded son, and John's disappointment that even though he's successful, he's not the up-from-the-bootstraps millionaire he'd hoped to be. And then there's John's problem with Timmy, long his mommy's pet, but now a real man, back from war. John resents his son's wartime experience and new advantages under the G.I. Bill; decades before, John had been turned away from the World War I recruiting office as the sole supporter of his family, and no doubt, he's felt that he's never really had a chance to prove himself.
If Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? turned marital strife into a riotous cross between grand opera and Grand Guignol, Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses keeps the conflict on a more subdued level; it's significant that when Timmy cajoles his mom into dancing with him across the living room, Nettie is afraid that the noise will disturb the neighbors.
The tone of this quiet but intense play turns on the portrayal of John, and Bill Epstein gets him just right. As amusing as some of the family bickering may seem, Epstein's John is always tightly wound, bitter and potentially dangerous. There's no physical violence in this play, but Epstein, without clenching a fist, seems ready to strike at any moment.
Cynthia Jeffery gives us a stalwart but worn-down Nettie, a woman who honestly seems not to realize how she manipulates her son. The way Jeffery glares at John with evenness, fatigue and disappointment says as much as any of her lines can; even so, her measured, melancholy delivery of a late-night monologue provides one of this production's finest moments.
Eric Schumacher looks a bit old to play Timmy, but he supplies a steadiness and resolve that might elude some younger actors. It's good to see Schumacher take on a low-key, "normal" role after the splashier, less naturalistic parts he's gotten in the past year (including a sleazy producer and an Egyptian lawyer in purgatory).
This emotionally claustrophobic play would seem a natural fit for Live Theatre Workshop's small stage; oddly, the set design by Seren Helday and Richard Gremel--one of the company's best in recent memory--stretches from wall to wall, for once suggesting the true dimensions of an apartment, but seeming unusually spacious in the context of this storefront theater. This does the play no harm, but it would have been all right to have capitalized more on the stage's cramped dimensions.
Emotionally, at least, the production sets just the right tone. This Subject Was Roses brings the occasional smile of a well-arranged bouquet, but there are always thorns lurking beneath.