World War, Bronx, 1946

The Subject Was Roses

By Frank Gilroy
Directed by John Capo
John Capo Productions/Fifth Annual Manhattan International Theatre Festival
WorkShop Theater Mainstage
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by David Mackler

Good plays are generally good because the emotional resonance is true to life both when the plays are new (in this case 1965) as well as when they are filmed (1968) or revived. This production of Frank Gilroy’s Pulitzer/Tony winner benefited from performances that seared and soared, and showed a careful, caring, yet tough directorial hand (Joe Capo).

When a banner proclaiming a soldier’s return home from war refers to him as Timmy (Phil Horton), it’s clear there are going to be issues of maturity involved. And the family Cleary’s dysfunction is believable, understandable, and frighteningly current. The father, John (Kenneth John McGregor), is alternately proud of his soldier son and disgusted by what he perceives as his lack of manhood – and that’s on top of his own bitterness at missing out on the action in WWI, having been his mother’s sole support. Mother Nettie (Diane Shilling) fights John for Timmy’s affection -- to a great extent because she doesn’t have John’s, but also because of an unresolved grudge that has poisoned the well for a long time. Timmy has a sensitivity that John despises but that Nettie identifies with. All in all, a volatile stew in a pot about to boil over.

Emotions are raw, and, as in most families, misdirected. But little is obvious -- if characters like these were on to themselves it would be a group therapy session, not a family drama. So they flirt, make accusations, and act out at crossed purposes. They can’t ask for what they want -- they don’t know how -- so old resentments are fresh and unresolved. And while the play is thick with plot and revolves only around the events related, the family is recognizable and the situation is not dated.

Director Capo did well to let the play speak for itself, and did better in assembling his cast. Horton had a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look that was perfect for Timmy’s not knowing whether he was a good soldier or bad, a good son or bad, his own person or not. Shilling’s Nettie was fragile and steely, sometimes simultaneously, and it was thrilling to see her discover herself and her strengths. But the glory of the production was McGregor’s blustery, infuriating, irascible, demanding father, a man whose self-preservation instincts do not often mesh with his inklings of humanity. But when they do, notably at the end of the play, it was viscerally powerful, and very moving.

The set (Capo) and lighting (Philip Watson) were basic but effective – the play shone. What a family does and says means nothing, and everything -- just like the play’s title.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2004 David Mackler