The Subject Was Roses Theatre Review - Martin Sheen Revisits a Pulitzer Prize-winning Drama

"The Subject was Roses" currently running at the New Mark Taper Forum in Downtown Los Angeles

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. But more often than not, absence breeds apprehension. Such is the case with John Cleary (Martin Sheen). His son Timmy (Brian Geraghty) has returned home from the war, far less sickly and awkward than when the young man left three years ago. Although his ability to hold his liquor is a bit in question, Timmy is definitely a man now. Nettie Cleary (Frances Conroy) is equally excited to have her son back home. She is excited to have their mother-son relationship simply pick up where it left off, visiting the relatives, preparing his favorite foods for breakfast, etc.

(l to r) Frances Conroy, Brian Geraghty & Martin Sheen in "The Sujbect Was Roses"

As a man, Timmy must reacquaint himself with his parents, negotiating a new adult-child / parent relationship with each of them. It begins with a welcome home party of too much drinking, followed by an impromptu day of father-son bonding that dashes mother’s plans. The men return with the unexpected gift of roses, presented to her by John, but actually purchased for her by her son, Timmy. The flowers do well to make amends between all and for one glorious evening, the trio is a happy family.

Martin Sheen in "The Subject was Roses"

Martin Sheen portrayed the role of son Timmy in the film adaptation of The Subject Was Roses, directed Ulu Grosbard. Four decades later, Sheen comes full circle, revisiting Frank D. Gilroy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play in the role of John the father. Coincidentally, I spoke to two men about this play who happened to see the same performance that I did. One gentleman is much older than me, the other much younger. They both had very strong reactions to the play – opposite reactions. I am guessing that it is because I am a woman that I fell in the middle.

Conroy and Sheen in "The Subject Was Roses" at The New Mark Taper Forum

I found this production of The Subject Was Roses to be a good show. However, surprisingly, I didn’t find it to be anything truly special. Sheen, Conroy and Geraghty give fine performances in what is essentially a well-paced tapestry of scene work. The story features a closed-off wife, a philandering husband and a son, who tries in vain, to keep both of them happy. So certainly, one of the points of the piece is the futility of trying to change people who don’t want to change. I suppose another point would be that a very small gesture can create a huge ripple in any given relationship. While there is plenty of drama between the characters, the actual events within the play are very small. It’s what I like to call a “speed of life” play.

Mother-Son Heart to Heart

Misunderstanding and clashes in personality are not automatically transcended by biology. Timmy learns that despite his best efforts, there are always complications in a spousal relationship that can not be easily disentangled, even after a child becomes an adult.

A Family Moment

There are lots of access points by which the audience could engage in this drama, despite the piece being several decades old: infidelity, the evolution of one’s identity within the family structure, intergenerational miscommunication, even the issue of returning war veterans. For most of the audience, just seeing these three fine actors performing on stage is delightful enough. For me, the drama of the play was a bit too subtle; it just lacked… eccentricity, weight. However, I’m sure that most people will see parallels to their own families in this play, and enjoy it very much.

The Subject Was Roses is currently running through March 21, 2010 at:

The New Mark Taper Forum
at the Music Center
Downtown Los Angeles
135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Ticket Info: 213-628-2772

Photos by Craig Schwartz

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