When The Subject was Roses by Frank Gilroy opened on Broadway in 1964 the odds were against it. It had a director and producer who had never worked on Broadway, and three unknown actors. It ended up winning two Tony Awards, for Best Play and Best Featured Actor in a play (Jack Albertson). The play was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Drama. In 1968 the play was made into a movie which used the same cast as the Broadway play: Jack Albertson, Irene Dailey, and Martin Sheen. Martin Sheen was discovered, and the rest is showbiz history.
In 2010 Martin Sheen returned to the play at the Mark Taper Forum, but this time as the irascible father, John Cleary. The luminescent Francis Conroy plays Nettie Cleary, and the talented actor who starred in The Hurt Locker, Brian Geraghty, all but steals the show as the son Timmy (Sheen’s old role).
The Subject Was Roses is really an old-fashioned play, but at the time it seemed revolutionary. It was one of many plays of that period written about dysfunctional families. Although it takes place in 1946, it had a special resonance in that time of Viet Nam and all the returning soldiers who found the public and even their families less than comforting. The plot is simple: Timmy returns home to settle some old disputes that have torn up his family. The mother and the father seem to despise each other and Timmy finds himself in the middle. The play is a working out of the problems, or at least a beginning of attempts to do so.
Unfortunately, despite the wonderful performances, the play seems hopelessly dated. There are lots of arguments but the play doesn’t really say a lot. Later plays would explore this territory in more depth.
But if you want to see some really fine acting head down to the Mark Taper Forum to catch The Subject Was Roses, which plays until March 21. Neil Pepe of the Atlantic Theatre Company directs with a sure and steady hand. And in case you are wondering, Martin Sheen is still a great actor.