A dozen roses become metaphor for a tide of dysfunction in Frank Gilroy's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Subject Was Roses. When a son apprehensively returns home to the Bronx after a World War II sojourn in Europe, the crimson flowers become rays of hope that glimmer amidst reawakening disenchantment.
Director Maura Dhu Studi's story is no less one of reawakening, though hers reawakens the past rather than disenchantment. Her father, Jack Albertson portrayed John Cleary in the 1964 original Broadway production and Studi often found herself on hand during rehearsals. She memorized many lines of the play as Martin Sheen, Irene Dailey and her father honed their performances. While Albertson earned a Tony and an Oscar for the film version, Studi studied acting at New York's Strasberg Institute and other prominent schools. Studi now applies the skills she developed during her careers as a singer and a stage, screen and TV actress, to directing what was once her father's tour de force.
It is apparent that extensive work has gone into creating hospitable surroundings that counterpoint the characters' interpersonal disaster because Santa Fe Playhouse Board President James Clem is listed as a member of set and lighting designer Dylan Dorrell's construction crew. Antique cream-shaded living room lamps and a Kelvinator refrigerator scavenged from the New Mexico penitentiary lend authenticity to period surroundings.
In the opening scene true feelings initially remain disguised. Awkward banter sing-songs along as the Cleary family desperately tries to recapture the mutual respect and admiration that have dissipated over time. The three struggle to regain rapport, but deep-seated grievances unavoidably resurface. The inviting surroundings are rapidly subsumed by misgivings and disillusionment.
Kerry Kehoe has large shoes to fill as John Cleary. Yet the Irishman's experience from Gate and Abbey theaters in Dublin serve him well in developing the middle-aged persona's wildly emotional range.
"Oh, bless and save us," and "Joy, joy, Mrs. Molloy,' become Cleary's sarcastic rhyming slang when he is unable to handle contradiction or disaffection.
Early on, Will Arute's Tim Cleary holds his tongue as he wishes to gain the ***image1***love and respect of a father who is almost incapable of such overt affection. In Act 2, however, Arute discards Tim's mainly deferential behavior before amusing, yet plangent, alcohol-fueled revelations.
Gilroy employs several tropes amidst the characters' movement while he develops the pendulous emotions the trio experience. Episodes of mother-and-son dancing and song-and-dance routines, such as "Rio by the Sea-o," which are well choreographed by Santiago Candelaria, provide comic relief but no resolution.
Cracks of light from under hall and bedroom doors help create a poignantly illuminated atmosphere of wishful family felicity. Simultaneous warm lamplight sets the tone for Nettie's (Elizabeth McKenna) sublimation of brash yet daunted submissiveness, which precedes an unexpectedly moving soliloquy.
Though well acted and put together, accidents will happen. After falling from a table rather than being thrown by Nettie in frustration, as scripted, the vase of roses inadvertently breaks. McKenna, however, smoothly overrides this faux pas by picking up pieces of the shattered glass during her lines.
McKenna's ability to improvise while picking up the pieces of shattered glass while her character is unable to do the same with her shattered life gives The Subject Was Roses its lifeblood, while Studi's ties to the past give the play its heart.