Peter Goodman’s understated staging of Frank D. Gilroy’s 1965 Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Subject Was Roses” (which launched the career of Martin Sheen) offers no new insights into this well-crafted, three-character family drama but does feature outstanding portrayals by Susan Kussman (“Primary Colors”) and Matthew T. Wilson.
Gilroy’s coming-of-age tale concerns the homecoming of young WWII vet Timmy Cleary (Wilson) and the cathartic effect he has on his life-wounded parents, Nettie (Kussman) and John (Steve Gunning). Goodman is content to let the story unfold without any overt directorial intervention. Set in the Clearys’ drab Bronx apartment in 1946, the interaction among the three family members is deceptively low-keyed, lending additional impact to the lifelong marital angst that is revealed by play’s end.
Kussman’s portrayal of the emotionally wounded Nettie strikes a marvelous balance between innate spunk and utter hopelessness. She quite believably displays the grace and humor of the once-proud, sophisticated beauty whose spirit has been crushed under the weight of a loveless 20-year marriage to a relentlessly insensitive self-made man.
Wilson effectively exudes the quiet determination of Timmy, a former mama’s boy who, after three years of combat service, is now determined to come to terms with the family dysfunction with which he had lived before the war. It is deeply moving to watch as he staunchly demands that his parents respect his hard-won maturity while continuing to display his unabashed love for his mother and a new-found respect and affection for the father he had feared in his youth.
Gunning’s performance as the self-involved John Cleary is robust but seldom in sync with Kussman and Wilson. He effectively personifies a talented former guttersnipe who’s pugnaciously proud that he was able to fend for himself and provide for his family with only a fourth-grade education, but is constantly projecting through the other characters rather than conversing with them.
The set and lighting designs of Federico Fabrezzi and John Prince, respectively, are serviceable but rudimentary, while the entr’acte use of recorded big band music of the period proves immensely mood-enhancing.