Understating the Obvious

No bed of Roses: Sheen and Conroy on the sterile promontory

Does it really need to be said? There's a commonplace in our reality-TV talk-show Culture of Confession that dancing around an unspoken truth with repartee is really the art of evasion. What's worse, it's not manly, it's cowardly — Noël Cowardly. It starts with the idea that "gutsy" behavior, at least in the American theater, starts with somebody rolling up his sleeves around the kitchen table, like Biff Loman does before confronting his pop in Death of a Salesman, mano a mano. What happens then, in the storytelling devices commonly employed in our theater, is a climactic scene of cathartic gut-spilling, exposing some long-suppressed family secret.

Now that it has been aired, everyone feels better. At least that's the theory, one that dates back to Sophocles' Oedipus the King. American plays that have settled into history books under the label "great works" have a leaning toward the ancient Greeks, from Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller to Tennessee Williams and August Wilson. There's a mano-a-mano scene in all of them.

What sets them on the mantle of greatness, I think, is the quality of the secret. The problem is that such a quality might change with time, a change over which the author has no control. (That King Oedipus should eventually discover he'd inadvertently murdered his father and married his mom is a pretty good one, as secrets go. It has an enduring traction.) This would explain why a once great play like Frank D. Gilroy's 1964 Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–winning The Subject Was Roses (which opened last weekend at the Mark Taper Forum) has become something between a good play and a chestnut. (The Taper is staging it in its new season of American classics.)

When a young man (Brian Geraghty), recently home from serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, rolls up his sleeves (figuratively speaking) to tell his emotionally blocked, up-from-the-working-class father (Martin Sheen), "I love you, Dad," the awkwardness of the response, which Sheen ensnares with the subtlest of facial ticks, is a revelation of a generation gap that pierces the hitherto unspoken codes of conduct and propriety. The moment is, well, momentous — if you're living in 1964.

More than 40 years later, however, we've experienced that scene a thousand times, along with the issue of how the only child feels responsible for the fractures in his parents' marriage. It's a theme that's been been ground out and down via a thousand TV movies, plays and episodes of Dr. Phil. For these and other reasons, I found it just a little bit embarrassing, but then again, I'm British. The British rarely talk about anything emotional head-on. We just engage in deflection and wry jokes with a sarcastic undertow. That's why we invented Noël Coward. Before arriving at this cathartic moment, however, there's so much that's either unspoken or understated, which is why it really is a very good play. Yet the primary joy is less the quality of the secret than the quality of the performances.

Martin Sheen — an unknown actor in 1964 — played the son in the original Broadway production. From the subtlety, power and droll humor of his performance here as John Cleary, a now middle-class survivor of the Great Depression, it would seem that the play has settled into his bones over the decades. John Cleary had the wit and wherewithal to carve out a life for his now estranged wife, Nettie (Frances Conroy), and their only surviving son, Timmy (Geraghty).

The coming-of-age-story rolls through the tug and pull of Timmy's respective bonds with his mother and his father. Dad is great in public, charismatic and powerful. His private life, however, is a sterile promontory — a circumstance depicted less in explication than in the revelatory body language of both Sheen and Conroy when they're together on the stage.

As grand as Sheen's performance may be, Neil Pepe's meticulous and brisk production hangs on Conroy's Nettie. She possesses the unique blend of a piping voice and world-weary eyes (and the comportment to go with them) that leaves the impression of a fading debutante who has accrued her indisputable intelligence from years of experience, from hopes devolved into habits, and from the growing realization, to quote Linda from Death of a Salesman, that "life is a casting off."

There's an earnestness to Geraghty's boyish Timmy in a very appealing, walking-on-eggshells interpretation of growing inner strength.

The action unfolds on Walt Spangler's realistic period post-War set, which bifurcates the living room and the kitchen, the most obvious of many divides that run though Gilroy's drama like fault lines.

"I wanted people to understand that it wasn't all about Nazi Southerners who should all be taken out and shot. I didn't want black culture, a black story, to be totally dependent on white racism. That bothers the hell out of me."

These are the words of Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, speaking in 2000 to the L.A. Weekly about a play she had written about her son (The State of Mississippi Versus Emmett Till) shortly before it was presented by Unity Players Ensemble at The Complex. To that point, Mobley had turned down offers from other playwrights and film companies to adapt the saga of her 14-year-old boy, an only son living with his mother and grandmother in Chicago, lured to Mississippi for a working vacation in 1955 by an uncle. The precocious Emmett Till had survived polio and acquired a telling and ultimately lethal verbosity, possible as a consequence of his prevailing over a stutter.

Unspoken codes of conduct in Mississippi were quite different from those in Chicago in 1955. If you had black skin, you didn't whistle at women with white skin, as Emmett did to a shopkeeper. Days later, he was apprehended in the night, dragged and beaten to his unspeakably brutal death before being dumped in a river. His body was returned to Chicago on the condition that his casket not be opened.

Mamie Till Mobley defied this condition, insisting that his casket be open at a funeral attended by an estimated 50,000 mourners — thereby exposing America's mutilated face of racism to the world. It was a flashpoint for the nascent civil rights movement, which, only months later, inspired Rosa Parks to defy a local ordinance consigning "coloreds" to the back of buses.

Ifa Bayeza's The Ballad of Emmett Till is a new choreopoem that retells this now legendary family drama — the family being America itself. If The Subject Was Roses turns on the inexplicable divide between a husband and a wife, The Ballad of Emmett Till turns on the inexplicable divide between the North and the South.

If we've heard the story of a boy trying to tell his father that he loves him, we've also heard the story of the 14-year-old black child being beaten to a pulp because he presumably dared to talk back to some white thugs. This is why the focus of this play need not be about the ugly secret, but it is anyway.

This production comes emotionally charged from the recent, brutal murder of its original director, Bennett Bradley, on January 2 of this year in his Los Angeles apartment, though the issues swirling around each killing are quite different. Shirley Jo Finney took over directing duties, and author Bayeza has done considerable work recrafting her play for the intimate Fountain Theatre (where it opened last week), from its original production at Chicago's considerably larger Goodman Theatre in 2008.

A five-member ensemble (Bernard Addison, Rico E. Anderson, Adenrele Ojo, Karen Malina White and Lorenz Arnell in the title role, though the ensemble playing style allows each character's thoughts to be echoed by the other actors) recites the narrative — and this really is a narrative — with a kind of breathtaking vivacity, which never lets the event slip from its riveting standard.

The tale of Emmett's youth in Chicago and camaraderie in Mississippi is so infectious, with a kind of Under Milk Wood/A Prairie Home Companion charm, that when the abduction inevitably unfolds, we have exactly the kind of black and white story that Emmett's mother said she most feared.

The problem may be one of taste, but it ties directly back to the compulsion to spill the guts theatrically. Finney's staging of the abduction starts brilliantly, with a pair of headlights appearing behind a translucent scrim. The production then devolves into a graphic, extended and emotionally exploitive depiction of the fatal beating — a scene the ancient Greeks would have avoided, showing merely the aftermath of the violence. It was, in fact, the aftermath of the violence that changed the world — the open casket. That said it all. This production would be stronger, and give more credit to our intelligence, if it followed the same example.

THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES | By FRANK D. GILROY | MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Through March 21 | (213) 628-2772.

THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL | By IFA BAYEZA | Presented by THE FOUNTAIN THEATRE, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd. | Through April 3 | (323) 663-1525.

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