The Subject Was Roses – theatre review

Theatre Jacksonville presents Frank Gilroy’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning “The Subject Was Roses,” on stage at 2032 San Marco Boulevard until March 8, 2014. Call 904-396-4425 or visit for information and reservations.

This is a glowing and superbly acted revival of one of the best-written plays of all those which have been honored with a Tony. It beat out Neil Simon‘s “Odd Couple” which gives you an idea of how well it was regarded.

The play is set in 1946 and takes place over an extended weekend. Timmy Cleary has just returned home, safe and sound, after a wartime Army tour of duty. In the years he has been away, his parent’s marriage has disintegrated, and is filled with bitterness, disagreements, and highly charged hostility. Timmy, too has changed; he has become an agnostic who rejects the Catholic teachings of his upbringing, and he also drinks excessively.

The family history is revealed in bits and pieces in this striking psychological portrait. Al Emerick as John Cleary is a successful coffee salesman with only a fourth grade education. He is subject to mercurial mood swings. In Act I, he is falling all over Timmy expressing his joy that his son is home, in Act II, his attitude changes radically. He resents his wife’s actions as she showers Timmy with affection, and he then becomes both angry and hypercritical with his son. Emerick brings substantial vocal dynamism and high energy to this role.

Rhonda Fisher as Nettie is also a study in contrasts, at first the doting mother, delighted her son is home, but soon disheartened by the changes she sees, and especially dismayed that he has joined John in bouts of heavy drinking. Her disappointments with life are not as evident as those that John has experienced, as she does not proclaim them as loudly. We learn that she does know of her husband’s tawdry infidelities, but has accepted them in silence. Nettie also expresses her dislike of the county cottage John purchased years ago, as she hates being out in the wild. Ms. Fisher gives a marvelously controlled performance and she does so with skilled body language and facial gestures to express her emotions.

Lucas Hopper as Timothy Cleary is excellent. A handsome, clean-cut young man, he is a son both parents should be proud to claim. He is impressive as he tries to appease his mother and father as they are at odds with each other. Timmy buys Nettie a dozen red roses (hence the title “The Subject was Roses,”) but tells her that his father bought them. This apparent show of affection by John for Nettie seems to spark the start of a reconciliation. But does it? We will leave that for you to discover when you see this intelligent and thought-provoking drama.

Director Thomas Traguer has confidently and sensitively steered his splendid cast to find the deep veins of compassion and humanity in the text of this play. The acting is uniformly worthy of the script.

Scenic Designer David Dawson‘s picture-perfect 1940’s middle-class Bronx apartment couldn’t have been better, transporting the audience back to the start of the post-war era. Sally Pettegrew‘s costume designs accurately reflecte the styles of the period. Katie Gile is the Stage Manger with Matt Calise serving as Assistant Technical Director.

If you appreciate award-winning and quality scripts, well-performed, and well-directed, than by all means don’t miss this interesting struggle of three characters at odds with each other trying to bridge the gaps that separate them.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.