REVIEW: The Long Red Road (Goodman Theatre)

We all need a reason not to die in our sleep

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Goodman Theatre presents:

The Long Red Road

 

by Brett C. Leonard
directed by
Philip Seymour Hoffman
through March 21st (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

We all need a reason not to die in our sleep. Such is the sad, irrefutable wisdom of The Long Red Road, where that reason proves relentlessly elusive. In playwright Brett C. Leonard’s stark, devastated landscape, bodies are physically wrecked by alcohol, hearts spiritually wracked by alcoholics.

Production_08 “I’m afraid I’ll always be thirsty,” says Sam (Tom Hardy), an alcoholic for whom every new day offers a thousand good reasons to die. Hardy’s delivery of the line sends shivers down the spine. There is no quenching this kind of thirst, only the temporary escape of blackouts. Sam isn’t alone in the conclusion that the unbearable heaviness of being is all but unendurable. Each of the six tormented souls in The Long Red Road is wandering through a desert, the unshakable ache of the relocation muscatel blues chasing them like arid Furies.

Director Philip Seymour Hoffman orchestrates the piece like a conductor shaping a symphony. A slow, deliberate crescendo of damage builds shock upon shock, none of them gratuitous, all of them wrenching. Leonard’s dialogue is spare; some scenes are all but monosyllabic, others entirely wordless. With the economy of poetry, Leonard makes every word count. The suffering on stage hits hard, the lack of extraneous frills in the staging making it all the more intense. A small oval of light in a sea of darkness pinpoints the stunning damage to a 13-year-old girl as she’s being raped by a close family member. An overflowing ashtray and a small FedEx box indicate the pathetic remnants of a life lost to whiskey. A barn ladder is an entry try way to the sins of the father, monstrosities inflicted through generations, ensuring generations of monsters to come.

Production_06 Yet for all that, The Long Red Road is profoundly optimistic. It gives nothing away to say that in the final scene, there’s a baptism by fire as an inferno consumes a silent, sinister monument to decades of abuse and awful secrets. Sex, throughout most of the play defined by fear, hate, and loss, becomes a powerfully redemptive celebration of forgiveness and unconventional beauty in the last scene. Characters who have been waiting all their lives for confirmation that they are, in fact, human beings of value, potential and goodness receive that confirmation. That it comes from beyond the grave is tragic. That it comes at all is reason for joy.

At the crux of Leonard’s harrowing drama are two brothers: Sammy (Hardy, utterly convincing as a drunk hurtling toward the point of no return) and Bob (Chris McGarry, simultaneously repulsive and profoundly empathetic portraying a man as damaged as he is damaging). Leonard gives us the backstory in atmospheric slashes of exposition, leaving the audience to connect-the-wounds as the picture slowly comes into focus.

After a horrific, completely preventable car accident led Sammy to abandon his wife Sandra (Katy Sullivan, whose flat affect is imbued with infinite shadings of conflicting love, hate, fear and stony self-reliance) and daughter Tasha (10th grader Fiona Robert in an astoundingly nuanced performance that displays range and depth well beyond her years).

Nine years after the accident, Bob is overwhelmed, tortured and enraged by demons warping his desire to do right by his inherited family into something terrible. Sammy is drinking himself to death in the dead-end town of Little Eagle, South Dakota, his school teacher girlfriend Annie (Greta Honold, a near-perfect depiction of an adult child of an alcoholic, trying to save the drunk boyfriend stand-in for her drunk father) patiently, choosing not to see the dead-end in the depths of Sammy’s “drunk, bloodshot, bullshit eyes.”

“You’re probably waiting on someone I ain’t never gonna be,” Sammy says one night, a razor-blade shard of truth slicing up through the seemingly endless torrent of repellent self-delusion that keeps him (barely) alive. That is, of course, exactly what Annie is waiting for. The moment illustrates the power of Leonard’s language and of Hoffman’s astute direction: It is instilled with the sorrow of a million lost drunks, that rare sliver of inescapable reality that propels one irrevocably toward either recovery or death.

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For Clifton (Marcos Akiaten), the Native American bartender at the ironically named Red Road bar (the red road, Clifton explains, is the Native American phrase for sobriety ), Sammy’s increasingly self-destructive binges are the symptoms of a deeply diseased man.

When the bar’s patrons – fed up with Sam’s cringingly offensive rants – decide to tie Sam to a truck axel and drag him through the Reservation (with a sign proclaiming the likes of “I’m a racist honky” around his neck), Clifton steps in and saves him. Akiaten is a largely silent wonder, dispensing tequila shots with the judgment free stony-eyed compassion that comes from a stone-solid foundation inner strength. This is a man who has fought the Furies and won – at least for today in a one-day-at-a-time recovery process that will never pass into the past tense. Clifton’s recovering, never recovered. Akiatenin captures that beautifully, craggy face reflecting the never-ending battle of turning away from a bottle while living with an endless, unquenchable thirst.

Stories of alcoholics are rarely ground-breaking – there’s nothing new about the saga of a drunk who leaves his family in ruins. But this particular tale is so authentic that it transcends its well-trod genre. When Sandra screams that Sammy “took my legs,” the moment is as raw and real as theater get, primarily because Sullivan is a phenomenal actor but secondarily because she was born without legs. The Long Red Road is defined by such veracity – startling,  moving and at times, difficult to bear in its stark authenticity.

If this acting thing doesn’t work out for Hoffman, he can always fall back on directing.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

VIDEO: Playwright Brett C. Leonard discusses his play

 

 

Creative and Technical Team

Brett C. Leonard (Playwright), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Director), Edward Pierce (Lighting), Ray Nardelli and Joshua Horvath (Sound Design), Janice Pytel (Costume Design), Kimberly Osgood (Stage Manager)

Cast

Marcos Akiaten, Tom Hardy, Greta Honold, Fiona Robert, Katy Sullivan
See bios for all actors HERE.

   
   

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