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The Subject Was Roses

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

With major cultural shifts happening in America about every 20 years, it shouldn't be too surprising that Frank D. Gilroy's award-winning play The Subject Was Roses is finally receiving a revival 40 years after its Broadway premiere. Though that revival, now at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, is a bit diminutive both physically and dramatically, the play's beauty and power still shine through.

While the play is unquestionably a product of the early 1960s, in the ways it depicts children struggling to break free from their parents' physical, emotional, and moral strictures, it feels not at all alien to either its post-World War II 1946 setting or 2004. The Subject Was Roses will be timely as long as parents lose touch with their children and each other, only to mend those bridges and still find things different than before.

The specific story of the play is about Timmy Cleary (Phil Horton), who returns home to his parents' home in the West Bronx to find that he no longer relates to his mother Nettie (Diane Shilling) or his father John (Kenneth John McGregor) quite the way he once did. As long-hidden resentments start rising to the surface, it soon becomes clear that Timmy's parents' feelings for each other - which may have always been on shaky ground - have also considerably degraded during his absence.

The erosion quickens when Timmy, in an attempted act of kindness, insists that his father take credit for buying his mother a bouquet of roses that Timmy purchased. When the deception is uncovered, it seems as if the tenuous connections still holding the family together will sever completely, and that the doubts that each person has - Timmy about his achievements in the war, Nettie about marrying John, and John about the values he instilled in his son - may swallow all their relationships whole.

Gilroy's writing skillfully traces the course of the family's rise and fall, introducing at each stage of the drama new elements provocative enough to push the story continuously forward. Questions about issues such as the cause of Timmy's apparent drinking problem or John's resentment towards his son's attitude are seamlessly woven into the tapestry of the play; these create a true slice of the Cleary family's life that nonetheless echoes the riotous social change happening just outside the walls of their home.

John Capo has directed the production thoughtfully and created with his actors a number of sublimely moving moments, most of which are in the second act. The first act, which is slowed down by some troublesome pacing of exposition and scene changes, is less effective. Capo's simple living room set and Philip Watson's lighting design are both fine, and Christie LaCorte contributes some enjoyably antic choreography for Timmy and his mother to celebrate his homecoming.

Of the performers, only Shilling disappoints; she seems so distanced from the play's events that Nettie's eventual rebellion against the men doesn't pack the devastating emotional wallop it should. Shilling does, however, acquit herself nicely in the play's poignant final scenes. If McGregor and Horton aren't likely to erase memories of John and Timmy's originators, Jack Albertson and Martin Sheen, they're strong throughout, and establish a thoroughly believable father-son dynamic that movingly drives home the story's redemptive and curative messages.

That's important because, at its core, The Subject Was Roses is about the ways - large and small, intended and accidental - that family members can hurt and help each other during times of strain and outside upheaval. As that's a story just as vital to the aftermath of World War II as it is the Vietnam War, the War on Terror, or any other foreign or domestic conflict, this The Subject Was Roses is relevant and worth savoring while it lasts.

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Midtown International Theatre Festival
The Subject Was Roses
Through August 1
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes with one 10-minute intermission
WorkShop Theatre, MainStage Space, 4th Floor, 312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: SmartTix 212.868.4444