Marbleworks Theatre

at Niles College

Inexperienced actors tend to focus on their dialogue, infusing the words with lots of feeling and animation. Veteran actors also know how to extract meaning from the spaces between words. Instead of merely hitting the notes dictated by the author, veteran actors make music onstage, evoking more emotion and insight than the marks on the page seem to contain.

The people who collaborated on the Marbleworks production of The Subject Was Roses make music together, and I’m not referring just to the actors–the designers and the director also make crucial contributions. Together they bring genuine depth and dimension to this simple story about an ex-soldier at the end of World War II who’s trying to extricate himself from his family. This production at Niles College, way out at Harlem and Touhy, was one of the most satisfying I’ve seen in years–and I don’t even like the play very much.

The play, written by Frank Gilroy, premiered in 1964, when Freudian psychology was firmly rooted in American literature–it’s loaded with oedipal tension. The mother behaves more like her son’s girlfriend, lavishing attention on him and making him visibly uncomfortable by kissing his hand a bit too ardently. The father resents their closeness, and his resentment makes him hypercritical of his son and constantly angry at his wife, who regards him with silent but unmistakable revulsion. The son is in a horrible bind–he wants his father’s approval and he enjoys his mother’s affection, but he also knows he has to get the hell away from them both.

Such incestuous longings are no longer very shocking, and they’ve even become a bit corny. Fortunately, the actors in this production managed to transcend the stale Freudian undertones by filling the spaces between the words with body language and facial expressions that add complexity to these three hapless characters.

George Lugg, for example, displays two extremes of the father’s character. In the first act he’s practically bursting with joy that his son has returned home safely from the war. Though he’s devoted to his job and ready to go to the office on this Saturday morning, he decides to skip work so he can take his son to a Giants game. “I thought of Mr. Freeman,” the father says, referring to a neighbor whose son was killed in the war. “What wouldn’t he give to be able to spend a day with his son?”

But in the second act, which takes place on Sunday morning, after relations with his wife have hit a new low, the father is grumpy, abusive, and domineering–the behavior of a husband who feels profoundly humiliated by his wife. But Lugg doesn’t indulge the obvious oedipal interpretation. Instead he shows a soft, vulnerable man protecting himself behind a wall of hostility and aggression. The father in the first act merely had his guard down, we realize, and the father of the second act is merely trying to salvage a sense of power and self-esteem.

Helen Engelbrecht as the mother does something similar. The icy rigidity that seizes her body when her husband is around fills the stage with tension, even when she is perfectly silent. Though when he returns with roses for her, she begins to melt a little.

Peter de Faria as the son gives a performance of almost cinematic subtlety. With just a hint of tension in his back or a slight eagerness in his eyes, he manages to convey the young man’s longing for his father’s approval.

William Fosser, who designed the ingenious set for the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse’s current production of Phantom, has masterfully transformed the Marbleworks stage into a 1946 apartment, with a vintage can of Bab-O on the sink, a vintage box of Argo cornstarch on the shelf, and glass milk bottles in the icebox. Lighting designer William Shadinger intensifies certain moments by increasing the illumination subtly, if not quite subliminally. Jay Hurley’s costumes are authentic, right down to the seam running up the back of the mother’s stockings. And director Mary Bonnett has skillfully harmonized all these elements into a moving drama that’s fresh and persuasive, despite its age and antiquated undertones.