There's an 800-pound elephant in the room. We can't see it, but we can tell that it's there. We can't go over it, nor can we go under it. We just have to deal with this pachyderm the best we can. So do the Clearys of Frank Gilroy's suppressing drama The Subject Was Roses. The Pulitzer Prize, Tony-winning opus resonates domestic tension as vibrant as it did four decades ago, thanks to this effective production opening Palm Beach Dramaworks' seventh season.
Welcome to the humble domicile of John and Nettie Cleary. It's the morning after their son Timmy has come home from World War II. John (James Rutledge), an executive, has a prospect to meet with, and Nettie (Cary Barker), a domestic engineer, wants to play catch-up with her baby boy (Zolan Henderson). During clean up after a party thrown in Timmy's honor the previous night, the spouses discuss the business of the day. During this conversation, we can read a lot of the deep subtext in their dialogue. Something ain't right! Something hasn't been right for a long time. The elephant is pacing when we realize that John and Nettie's bond has been completely broken, and having their only son home after his tour of duty seems to pacify the friction only when he's in plain sight.
Both John and Nettie put Timmy on a pedestal for different reasons. You can tell Timmy has come from Nettie's womb, and she doesn't want to cut that umbilical cord. She even freaks when he uses mature language that never came from his mouth before he joined the armed forces. John, on the other hand, is proud of his son enlisting and coming back alive. He frequently counts on his fingers the other boys who didn't return. The two parents use Timmy as a buffer and we see the power struggle to win his affections.
As the day grows darker, so does this family. Timmy has developed a complex that he hides using alcohol, and John tries to force the love back between himself and Nettie, with crushing results; all the little things climax as the elephant gives a resounding trumpet only the audience hears.
The Subject Was Roses survives after four decades because family rivalries will always be the subject of the day. The era in which Roses takes place might be dated, but the play thrives on its story of love, hate, control and redemption. Frank Gilroy's script is filled with such deep nuance that it takes three actors to ebb and flow this domestic tension to the surface.
Cary Barker is an amazing find as the put-upon Nettie. Barker conveys Nettie's apathy toward her husband, and her sadness abounds when she realizes that her baby is grown, too grown to her liking. We even see the worn down lines on Barker's face when she tries to comprehend her current situation.
James Rutledge shows multiple layers in John's turn as proud papa, scarred husband and odd man out in Nettie and Timmy's playground. John, a devout Catholic, gets upset when Timmy decides not to go to mass with him. Rutledge brings fire to the argument while we see John's insides ripped out as his son pulls away from him. And, even though the spouses are supposed to be working against each other, Rutledge and Barker crackle with positive chemistry, making John and Nettie's conflict believable.
As the beleaguered son, Zolan Henderson goes the distance. Through Henderson we see pain, but also pleasure when Timmy puts his parents through their paces like a mischievous two-year-old. He may like the attention at first, but he regrets it after a single argument knocks him off his mother's pedestal forever. Henderson is a nice piece in this cohesive puzzle.
With Michael Amico's scenery of a handsome home, Erin Amico's choice of apparel for each character complements nicely. Timmy's uniform, Nettie's dresses and John's business suits have 1946 written all over them, and it helps that the Dramaworks production staff gives the actors room on stage to breath, a nice assist to William Hayes' direction.
Palm Beach Dramaworks is one of few companies in this region making sure that classic and contemporary work is balanced. This production of The Subject Was Roses assures us that the company is steering on the right course. Now playing through December 2nd. For tickets, please call 561-514-4042 or www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Palm Beach Dramaworks - The Subject Was Roses
Starring James Rutledge*, Cary Barker* and Zolan Henderson*
Directed by William Hayes
Stage Manager: Lara Kinzel*
-- Kevin Johnson