Milwaukee Chamber's Evening With A Family From The '40s

Love, Connection and Three People In A Studio Theatre

Nov. 21, 2010
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The serious mid-to-late 20th family drama had gone quite a few different places . . . walking into Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s The Subject Was Roses, I expected something profoundly dark. The 1964 drama about an adult son returning to his two parents after serving overseas in World War II didn’t sound very cheery—particularly as it explored alcoholism and emotional abuse . . . It was kind of a relief to find out that the darkness in Frank D. Gilroy’s Roses doesn’t have the sinister edge of A Streetcar Named Desire, or the overwhelming darkness found in Long Day’s Journey Into Night or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?    

There are three characters here—a mother, a father and a son. We see the entire action of the play move back and forth between a kitchen and a living room. In the course of the play, the actual events of the play are merely extensions of who these people are. This is essentially one long three person character sketch. It’s an audience’s opportunity to get  to know three characters delivered to the stage by three actors under the direction of C. Michael Wright—a director who consistently delivers very solid, very intense drama to the stage every year. Here are some initial impressions of the three characters and the actors who play them:

John Cleary—played by James Tasse—A coffee salesman living in the Bronx in the ‘40’s. He’s done pretty well for himself. There’s some of the charm of the salesman in the character present in a very earthy performance by Tasse. There’s a kind of gritty pragmatism about him that can also be as stubborn as gravity itself. That Tasse is able to make this a like-able quality says a lot about his talent as an actor.

Nettie Cleary—played by Tami Wokentin—John Cleary’s wife. Like so many other women of the era, she didn’t have much option outside of being a housewife. Workentin plays her with remarkable strength. She visits her mother quite often . . . family is very important to her. That she and John only had one child says a lot about her relationship with him. There’s a connection between John and Nettie, but it’s not what it should be.

Timmy Cleary—played by Nicholas Harazin—A veteran back from the war. John and Nettie’s son. He’s been away for years and come back a changed man—perhaps better adjusted than he was prior to the war. It’s only mentioned in passing while he’s not actually in the room, but he had seen the horrors of a concentration camp firsthand—not an easy thing to live with. And Harazin plays a man who has returned from the war with a love for life—on remarkably solid footing for someone who has seen the horrors of war. He’s still battling demons from his life prior to the war—demons that seem a lot more intense than anything he’d confronted overseas.

It’s a very compelling couple of hours with a family from 60-plus years ago. Wright and company have done a really, really good job here.


Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s The Subject Was Roses runs through December 12th at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. A more concise review of the show runs in this week's Shepherd-Express.





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