If Long Day’s Journey into Night is the great white-Irish whale of American drama, then The Subject Was Roses is the fish you throw back. That may account for my never having seen the 1964 play (which won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award) performed on stage but only in the 1968 film, whereas O’Neill’s monumental autobiographical drama surfaces every couple years. Yet as Linda Loman, an iconic if hardly an Irish-American figure of our national stage, says: " Attention must be paid. " The Subject Was Roses, with its post-World-War-II Irish-American family in crisis, is not Long Day’s Journey. But this old-fashioned play is both delicate and explosive, and Gloucester Stage Company’s revival, under the direction of Eric C. Engel, is rock-solid.
Frank D. Gilroy was a writer and director of film and television as well as a playwright. He first came to theatrical notice with the Obie-winning 1962 Who’ll Save the Plowboy?; he followed that with this autobiographical drama, which was written years after the events that inspired it. In 1946, Gilroy, like the play’s Timmy Cleary, was a returning soldier, a Bronx-bred Irish-American who had entered the Army a wet-behind-the-ears teen and was returning at 21 a veteran able to cast a more mature eye on the family wars. The drama stretches across the several days immediately following Timmy’s homecoming, as long-term nuclear-clan alliances shake and shift.
Gilroy lacks the poetic reach of O’Neill, and morphine casts no gauzy aureole around his badly married mother figure. But there are echoes of Long Day’s Journey, as well as the slosh of booze and tears, in his drama, with its volatile, boozy, tight-fisted dad and his tales of a hardscrabble youth and its genteel, if less Catholic and more controlling, mom. Moreover, Gilroy captures the unique dynamic of the one-child family, with its variations on two-against-one. Although these warring parents are more meat-and-potatoes than O’Neill’s haunted progenitors, this is what Long Day’s Journey might have been like if two of the Tyrones’ sons had died of the measles, leaving only a singleton to endure the folks.
As the play opens, one-time delicate child Timmy has returned miraculously unscathed from his service in the war. He candidly, even blithely, informs his gung-ho dad that this is due, at least in part, to his having been a mediocre soldier who never volunteered. Nonetheless, much is made of him by father John, with whom he has newly bonded, until he refuses to go to Mass. The father-son alliance tips the balance away from Timmy’s historical champion, mother Nettie, and the parents commence to battle for their son as if he were Jerusalem. The whole thing is rather manic-depressive (and so is the father). But Gilroy makes it believably sad and cyclical, wrenching repressed emotion from beneath celebration (including one involving festive straw sombreros) and conflict, capturing the love among three people who can’t stop blaming one another.
The play’s excellent outing at Gloucester Stage is marked by drab period décor, jaunty period music, and telling body language. The highlight, however, is Robert Walsh’s painfully convincing turn as the now affable, now fist-pounding father who’s given to sing-song substitute swears and such pronouncements as " I am the boss of this house! " and " Clearys have been Catholic since the beginning of time. " Toward the end of the play, Nettie describes to Timmy her first glance, through an office-building window, at her future spouse, who assaulted her with a ferocious stare. She knew at once, she says, that they would be unsuited but involved. And Walsh, from the moment he enters, graying but dapper in suspenders and short period tie, captures the glowering energy his wife attributes to him.
Judith McIntyre is a prim, fiery, aptly ironic Nettie, with impeccable Irish credentials. The production was to have included her much-younger sibling, former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre, as the son. But he got a TV gig (Boston Public) and was replaced by Actors’ Studio Drama School MFA candidate David Hale, who gives a sincere, genial performance that is also marked by a certain possibly deliberate slackness. As for Walsh, he’s terrific, whether telling the old jokes, flexing the old tribal prejudices, leaning drunkenly at a perfect diagonal, or inveighing against the morning coffee — which, like life itself, offers a variety of disappointments.