REVIEW: A Life (Northlight Theatre)

Strong performances aren’t enough

 

Matt Schwader (Desmond), John Mahoney (Drumm), Penny Slusher (Dorothy) and Joanne Dubach (Dolly)

 
Northlight Theatre presents
 
A Life
 
By Hugh Leonard
Directed by BJ Jones
Through April 25 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Everything ought to add up to a fine show at Northlight Theatre with its current production, Irish playwright Hugh Leonard’s 1979 drama, A Life: A world-renowned playwright … excellent performances from a skilled, high-powered cast, headed up by no less an actor than the acclaimed John Mahoney … careful staging from a seasoned director, BJ Jones. Yet it all adds up to a less-than-rewarding experience.

John Mahoney (Drumm) and Linda Kimbrough (Mary) Even the director calls it "a small story." For the little that happens, it’s very slow-moving and very talky — all in a thick Irish brogue that muddies comprehension even as it adds authenticity. Jones, in the program, quotes Leonard: "Being an Irish writer both helps and hampers me. Hampers, because one is fighting the preconceptions of audiences who have been conditioned to expect both feyness and parochial subject matter; helps, because the writer can use a vigorous and poetic idiom which enables him to combine subtly with richness." The strong Irish tone in this production hampers more than it helps.

Leonard, known best for his Tony Award-winning related play, Da, died last year, and I assume that inspired this production, although Jones’ program notes say he’s been "toting around" this play since the ’70s. Jones clearly sees it as a vehicle for Mahoney, who plays the central character, Desmond Drumm.

The play takes Drumm, a secondary character in Leonard’s Da, and puts him front and center. At the end of his life, Drumm is taking stock. He’s spent a career as a civil servant in a tiny Irish town near Dublin, and now, he says, "I need to know what I amount to."

Not much. He’s a bitter, acerbic, judgmental old man. He hasn’t spoken to his closest friends for a half dozen years. His wife is afraid of him. His sense of self-importance, intellectual snobbery and curmudgeonliness have set him at odds with the warm-hearted, informal society in which he lives. He hates his job, but after a poor showing in his youth, he’s never dared reach for the political career he once aspired to.

Robert Belushi (Lar) and Matt Schwader (Desmond) Linda Kimbrough (Mary) and John Mahoney (Drumm)
Seated_ Melanie Keller (Mibs) and Matt Schwader (Desmond).  Standing_ John Mahoney (Drumm) and Linda Robert Belushi (Lar), Matt Schwader (Desmond), Joanne Dubach (Dolly) and Melanie Keller (Mibs) Bradley Armacost and Robert Belushi - Kearns_Lar

The play shifts back and forth between the Drumm of 1977 and the Drumm of 1937, taking with it his wife, Dolly, played alternately by Penny Slusher, as a worried, browbeaten but lovingly supportive spouse, and Joanne Dubach, as an eager young woman whom the priggish younger Drumm, portrayed dynamically by Matt Schwader, shows little interest in.

He’s in love — both ineffectually and patronizingly — with Mary, played strongly in youth by Melanie Keller and even more sharply in later life by Linda Kimbrough. She, however, marries the rather loutish and devil-may-care, but affectionate Lar Kearns, portrayed as a young man by a vigorous Robert Belushi and in older life by a hearty Bradley Armacost.

The two couples nonetheless have maintained a lifetime friendship, broken by a rift six years before the outset of the play. In his stocktaking, Drumm goes to visit the Kearnses, somewhat grudgingly, to make up the quarrel, and put himself back on good terms with Mary, the one person for whom he feels respect. Gradually, Drumm — as self-critical as he is fault-finding of others — comes to realize what he’s shut himself away from.

Yet it doesn’t make us like him any better.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

A free, related panel discussion, "How the Irish Saved Theatre: The Legacy of Irish Plays and Playwrights," takes place at Northlight at noon Saturday, April 10. Reservations required at (847) 679-9501, ext. 3555.

Seated_ Penny Slusher (Dorothy).  Standing_ John Mahoney (Drumm), Linda Kimbrough (Mary) and Bradley