Mettle to the Petal: Avalon Theatre proves The Subject Was Roses is still well worth bringing up

Feb 11, 2009 at 4:00 am

Two stories are being told at the Avalon Theatre Company's staging of Frank D. Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses. One concerns the future; the other is as old as time itself. The future, we might hope, is to be found in Avalon's new playing space in a converted men's clothing store at Crestwood Mall, now renamed ArtSpace at Crestwood Court and currently in the process of becoming the new home to scores of arts groups. What seemed like a startlingly creative idea when it was announced three months ago has lost none of its luster now that it has come to fruition. Avalon's new no-frills playing space is comfortable and acoustically solid. For too many years now, local theater has been plagued by a lack of adequate performance venues. Judging from this debut production, ArtSpace has the potential to be a happy harbinger.

The second story, the old one, is Gilroy's subdued 1964 three-character drama, yet another entry on the long list of plays about dysfunctional American families. The Subject Was Roses is heartfelt, thoughtful and geometrically complex. It delivers a quiet yet potent evening of theater about the inability of husbands to connect with their wives and fathers to profess love for their sons. It sings a song about the kind of insecure woman who is emotionally unable to cease being her mother's daughter even though she is a mother herself.

Set in 1946 at the end of World War II, the autobiographical plot concerns the return home of 21-year-old Timmy Cleary after two years in the infantry. Timmy's war is not yet over; he's simply switching battlegrounds. If anything, the conflict in Europe provided him with a kind of respite, an escape from a life of having to listen to the constant sniping between his parents Nettie (Laura Ackermann) and John (Whit Reichert). Now Timmy's return to their Bronx apartment will re-ignite a dormant — even competitive — love that binds mother, father and son, but which none is capable of expressing. "All I want you to do is tell him how you feel," John implores his wife. But candor is the one quality of which the Clearys are incapable. They're much more comfortable playing a tag-team version of the Blame Game.

The Subject Was Roses is a study in economy. Gilroy carved and honed the dialogue to a point where there is not one unnecessary comma. Even though little of import occurs here — people tangle over whether the morning coffee is too strong — the play breezes by because it is so coherent and underwritten. And of course by evening's end, something eventful does occur: The family is compelled to confront the harsh truths that it has refused to face for far too long.

Director John Contini has mounted a straightforward production that chooses to play the lines when almost everything that is significant in Gilroy's play occurs between those lines. It remains for Whit Reichert as the affable failure of a father to penetrate the script's unspoken reaches. Reichert is primarily known for his roles in comedies and musicals, yet he often finds depths in characters that might seem one-dimensional. Eight years ago in the otherwise frothy She Loves Me at Stages St. Louis, he brought a shy poignancy to the suicidal cuckold Mr. Maraczek. Three years ago at Arrow Rock's Lyceum Theatre, he found hidden depths in Doctor Chumley that elevated Harvey to significance. Reichert always surprises, largely because you don't expect so much power to be lurking behind such a sweet face.

Nor is it necessarily a verbal power. At the end of Act One, he can stand silently a across the kitchen from his estranged wife and makes us feel — not the distance of ten feet, but rather the chasm of twenty years. His wrenching portrayal helps us to understand why this play is worthy of revival all these decades later. The subject isn't really roses: It's us.

Click here for a link to other performances, reviewed in short.