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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Nicholas Harazin (left), Tami Workentin and James Tasse in the kitchen in "The Subject Was Roses" (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

The Chamber Theatre delivers roses


The kitchen sink drama is a category of theater that revolves around family problems and conflict. The action takes place in a home, and, yes, the set usually includes a kitchen sink.

Frank D. Gilroy's 1965 Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Subject Was Roses" defines the genre. The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's production of it that opened last weekend defines how to do it.

Artistic director C. Michael Wright has elicited magnificent performances from James Tasse, Nicholas Harazin and Tami Workentin in a sensitive staging that sparkles with its attention to detail. Director and actors are doing some of their finest work in this three-character production.

A family triangle is the foundation of the play. Timmy Cleary arrives home in The Bronx in his army uniform after World War II and spends the first few nights with his parents. He is barely through the door when old tensions and resentments flare.

The young man was a pawn in his folks' marital discord before he went to war, and it appears that will resume with him back in the house. But Timmy has grown up, and his allegiance in the frequent skirmishes between mom and dad is less certain. Getting away from home and spending time in the army has given him a different perspective.

Playwright Gilroy gradually peels away the parents' rancor to reveal its causes. No surprising secrets are disclosed. The ordinary pockmarks and potholes of life, lived in close proximity by two people, can turn relationships and marriages sour.

Despite that, flames can still faintly flicker, and love can hide out beneath the bitterness. As the new saying goes, it's complicated.

All of the onstage action in "The Subject Was Roses" takes place in the side-by-side living room and kitchen at the Cleary home. Yes, we see a lot of the kitchen sink.

Tasse's feisty Irish father rings true with resounding authenticity. The character possesses a bare-knuckled charm as well as mercurial mood changes. The actor plays that with a palpable appeal and an ability to switch emotional gears with genuine fluidity.

Workentin's mother is just as real, smoldering with peevish antagonism. Her stiff physicality reflects an unhappy woman older than her years.

Harazin has distinguished himself as an actor in classical roles. Here he is the embodiment of a Bronx kid -- complete with accent -- with the new-found confidence of a chap who has survived the army and a war.

All three actors skillfully shade their performances to show us the familial love that still exists in their characters.

Gilroy's script is beautifully written, and Wright's meticulous direction burnishes this period piece with a stylish patina. Credit is also due designers Michelle Terese Grimm (costumes), R.H. Graham (set), Matthew J.A. Kerr (lights) and Devin Nee (sound) for creating an evocative environment.

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