Frank D. Gilroy’s 1965 Pulitzer and Tony winner, “The Subject Was Roses,” might seem a Philco Playhouse relic, with its living-room set, kitchen-sink naturalism and portentous revelations slotted before commercial breaks. But such a dismissal underestimates what shrewd artists can do with material of integrity. Anyone whose family was ever threatened by internal conflict can appreciate the truthfulness of Neil Pepe’s Mark Taper Forum staging and of a stellar cast including original son Martin Sheen, now bumped up to paterfamilias. This is a revival to savor.
Ex-G.I. Timmy Cleary (Brian Geraghty) returns to the Bronx in 1946 to find a war still in progress on the home front. And arbitrating this one may be tougher than defeating the Axis.
John Cleary (Sheen), a stiff-necked disciplinarian with a taste for the drink and the ladies, is this household’s unstoppable force. He runs smack into immovable object Nettie (Frances Conroy), once a prim young thing with ties to her papa she has transferred to her son, leaving her husband out in the cold.
In Ulu Grosbard’s original production, faithfully transferred to the screen in 1968, open hostilities had already commenced with a gloomy pall over the battlefield. At the Taper, Pepe wisely offers hope of a truce on Timmy’s first day home. Conroy twitters with anticipation against Sheen’s benign morning grumpiness, nailing every laugh in the text and providing Geraghty — a more gangly and raw Timmy than Sheen’s original — room to realize slowly, as we do, the lingering power of past rages and disappointments.
Slow build is characteristic of Pepe’s staging throughout. His thesps make every effort to work past their bitterness, swallow present-day slights and keep their fury in check. An easy naturalism is created, thereby intensifying those moments when excess liquor inevitably leads to excess candor. Truths get told, but with a minimum of the stagey melodrama to which this material is prey in less skillful hands.
Over some 800 perfs and weeks on a soundstage, Sheen certainly picked up and makes use of many of Tony and Oscar winner Jack Albertson’s rhythms in the role, but his Cleary is a unique and equally persuasive creation.
Less the obvious vaudevillian/vulgarian, Sheen conveys the dignity that must have attracted a young Nettie and a self-righteousness we can readily believe blinds him to the family’s realities. These are also traits of his “West Wing” President Bartlet, and it’s grimly amusing to see them put to use in the form of casual old-world bigotry or absurdly contradictory arguments over religion and money.
Geraghty, so affecting as the youth seeking counseling in “The Hurt Locker,” hasn’t quite transferred his cinematic stillness to the stage; his gestures are somewhat unmodulated and distracting. But he is utterly believable as a sad-sack soldier whose pop never predicted anything good from him, and by play’s end, he achieves genuine maturity.
Conroy’s triumph is harder won. With father and son centerstage, the play — like life itself — offers Nettie the short end of the stick. (A latenight monologue in act two has always seemed tacked on to give her more heft.) This luminous actress conveys her Oedipal fixation on Timmy, and the promise of her attempted flight to freedom, with the subtlest of gestures and line readings; her defeats don’t seem preordained but strike at the heart, strengthening her as the third leg of this sad familial triangle.
All tech elements contribute to relieving potential stuffiness. Walt Spangler’s set and Laura Bauer’s costumes look entirely lived in and not just well researched. Rui Rita’s special spots silently highlight key character moments, and Obadiah Eaves’ postwar jazz interludes rebuke John and Nettie’s picture-postcard conception of a world about to be handed over to the Timmys.
A celebrity-studded first-night crowd included author Gilroy and the redoubtable Patricia Neal, so memorable as Nettie onscreen.