The Subject Was Roses

Also see Ann's review of Rent

Frank D. Gilroy's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play, The Subject of Roses, is on the boards at the Public Theatre. Running on Broadway for 832 performances over a two-year span (in no less than five different theaters) in the mid-1960s, the quiet but boiling-beneath-the-surface play starred original performers Jack Albertson, Irene Dailey, and Martin Sheen. In a 1968 film adaptation, Albertson and Sheen reprised their roles, and Dailey was replaced by Patricia Neal. This is a natural play, a family drama, in which the performances are key to its success - all of the above actors, with the exception of Dailey, were nominated for acting awards (and Albertson won both a Tony and an Oscar). It is disappointing, then, that the cast of the Public's production isn't quite up to conveying the intensity necessary for us to fully appreciate Gilroy's work.

Taking place completely within the walls of the Cleary's middle class Brooklyn apartment over a 48-hour period in 1946, The Subject Was Roses follows the implosion of a small family. John and Nettie's son Timmy has returned from a two-year stint in the war. He left at age 19 as a sensitive, sheltered child, having been used as a life preserver by his mother as a defense against confronting her marital problems. She fed Timmy's belief that it was "mother and son" against the world - and a force quite separate from father John. It doesn't take long for Timmy to see clearly what is really going on between his parents, as he lets go of his lifelong determination to keep the peace in the household.

As John Cleary, Ross Bickell (previous in the cast of the Public's Arms and the Man, and on Broadway in Noises Off, The Icemen Cometh, and A Few Good Men) gives a strong, committed performance. He finds ways to show John's bombastic outward persona, while also subtly exposing the failed husband and father that John tries to hide. Bickell offers a portrayal that invites his co-actors to rise and meet head-on, but Carole Monferdini (Medea) and Joe Delafield (the Roundabout's Tartuffe) just don't allow their characters to emerge from their meek outward appearances. Delafield gives it a good shot - it's easy to feel empathy for his Timmy - but there needs to be more turmoil suggested by the character. Delafield is a competent young actor, but is perhaps miscast here. Monferdini's Nettie is simply bland, and the few outbursts provided by the script are not supported by her actions on stage. Overplaying is not necessary, but in the intimate O'Reilly Theater, we should feel the discomfort in the air - we should be squirming in our seats.

The realistic set by Michael Schweikartdt is superb - the period furnishings and decor are authentic and detailed, continuing all the way through doorways to the apartment bedrooms. Costumes (Jess Goldstein) and lighting (John Lasiter) add to the perfect setting for this play.

The Subject Was Roses tells a simple story of the painful exposure of one small family. Though the genius structure of the play sets the stage for a powerful drama, the Public's production falls a bit short of this potential.

The Subject Was Roses, directed by Rob Riggiero, continues at the Public Theater's O'Reilly Theater through February 22. For tickets and performance information, call 412-316-1600 or visit or the box office at 621 Penn Avenue.

Photo: Ric Evans

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-- Ann Miner

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