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Strike Didn't Keep 'Roses' From Rolling

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The cast of "The Subject Was Roses," which opens Jan. 7 at the Kennedy Center, was rehearsing in Manhattan during the transit strike. Last Wednesday, veteran film, stage and television actors Bill Pullman and Judith Ivey, along with newcomer Steve Kazee, each estimated they'd walked upward of 50 blocks to work.

And that may be as good a way as any to stoke up the energy needed to explore the family tensions in Frank D. Gilroy's three-character drama, which won a Pulitzer in 1965, as well as Tonys for best play and for Jack Albertson as a featured actor. It was also a career watershed for the young Martin Sheen, who was nominated for a Tony.

In "The Subject Was Roses," a long-married but loveless couple, John and Nettie Cleary, welcome their son, Timmy, twentyish and still in uniform, home from World War II. "The communication has broken down, very seriously, and they have lived with it, as opposed to try to analyze it or fix it," explains director Leonard Foglia. "In fact, I think they have lived for the past three years in a suspended state, waiting for the boy to come home, hoping that the boy will somehow fix them."

The play was unknown to Foglia except by its title when producer Jeffrey Finn suggested he stage a Kennedy Center revival. So he read it. "I was riveted and actually stunned by how lean it is. The plays of that period and especially ones of a little bit before, we look back at them now and they tend to be overly written," says Foglia.

Instead, Gilroy's semi-autobiographical play was not only spare but occasionally mysterious, says Foglia. Gilroy -- who met with the cast for a lunch and attended the first read-through -- should be lauded for bravery, Foglia says. "The bravery to have hugely important things happening between these people and having it be ambiguous in the writing. That leaves this giant space for all of us to create who these people are and what their past is."

Pullman, who plays the father, John, agrees: "I think that this relationship between the mother and father is very mysterious to the young boy and that . . . what is unspoken is so potent." The play, the actor concedes, has caused him to ponder his own, now deceased, parents and "what the mysteries are and [that] remain with them." He sees Timmy as the family's peacemaker, a role "you never quite escape, even after you leave the house."

For two-time Tony winner Ivey, who starred in the 2001 revival of "Follies" on Broadway and more recently in the solo tour de force "Women on Fire" off-Broadway, it has helped to think about Nettie as a pre-Oprah woman -- not given to self-analysis: "People in 1946 didn't do that. They just dealt with life as it came their way, and I find that fascinating as an actress because I have to let go of a lot of my own life, what I think I use in my own life, because Nettie wouldn't do that."

Says Ivey, who often directs plays, "It's a great acting exercise to take on, so that it's a much more impulsive reaction than calculated. . . . It's much more visceral to me."

Kentucky-born Steve Kazee, 30, comes to the production from regional theater work and a recent MFA from New York University, but only one Broadway gig -- as an understudy. He was headed there while talking with Backstage on his cell, called upon to fill in as a talking lizard for the ailing Frederick Weller in a revival of Edward Albee's "Seascape."

Kazee (pronounced kahZEE) still seems to be reeling from the idea that he was chosen -- after "three or four" auditions and a reading with Pullman and Ivey -- to play Timmy. "He's the catalyst that causes the whole play to happen. It's a great role," he says. "Once I got the part, the reality set in about how huge the character is. It's something that I absolutely am scared to death of, but at the same time, I'm so excited to be a part of."

The obvious question for Foglia is whether this production may move to Broadway, as did his (and producer Finn's) 2004 Kennedy Center revival of "On Golden Pond" with James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams. (It closed in June, after running a few months, when Jones developed pneumonia.)

Foglia first wants to focus on a no-pressure Kennedy Center run. "We're still figuring stuff out. It's nice to be in the trenches and actually not have that worry," he says. "We're doing it for the Kennedy Center for all the right reasons. . . . None of us are thinking beyond that at this moment."

Pullman, after years acting in films (recently in "Dear Wendy" and most famously in 1997's "Independence Day") earned kudos for his work in Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" on Broadway four years ago.

He likes "the way it's kind of set out to do it at the Kennedy Center first and see what we have. We didn't get that on 'The Goat.' It worked out well, but it was scary."

Three Kings Day at GALA

GALA Hispanic Theatre will hold its annual Three Kings Day celebration on Jan. 8 at 2 p.m. in its Tivoli space, 3333 14th St. NW. The bilingual event is free for children and families. The traditional Latin American holiday will be celebrated by local singers, dancers, storytellers and puppeteers. A Nativity scene will feature a live burro. Tickets will be available first-come, first-served, starting at 11 a.m. on the day of the event. Call 202-234-7174 or visit http://www.galatheatre.org .

Onstage, on One Knee

More Shakespearean marriage proposals: Somebody must have read in the Nov. 22 Backstage column how Rorschach Theatre's Randy Baker proposed to costume designer Deb Sivigny during a curtain call for "The Beard of Avon."

This time, it happened at the Shakespeare Theatre. On Friday night attorney Jason Buratti (an associate at the law firm Robbins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, a financial underwriter of the theater company) arranged to have actor Floyd King call him up to the stage during the curtain call for "The Comedy of Errors." Buratti proposed to his girlfriend, Kimberly Oalican (of Taunton, Mass.), who was in the audience. She accepted, went onstage and took a bow with Buratti and the cast. (Backstage does not do catering or event planning, so stop!)

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