Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Iceman Cometh
The Vortex Theatre
Review by Rob Spiegel


Image courtesy of The Vortex Theatre
I've never seen a play as dark as The Iceman Cometh. It's a powerful and brutal slog that lasts four hours in its abbreviated form. Its power leaves a film on your skin when it's over. James Cady's production at the Vortex is a rare chance to see Eugene O'Neill's disturbing masterpiece. Cady and his cast tell this dark story well, grinding out its rare realism.

As the play opens on a morning in 1912, the regulars at Harry Hope's saloon and rooming house in Greenwich Village are passed out at their tables. The dawn will bring a new day of drinking as these alcoholics nurse their resentments and stoke their pipe dreams. They are presently waiting for the arrival of boisterous salesman Theodore "Hickey" Hickman (Philip J. Shortell) who is due to show up for Harry's annual birthday celebration.

The title comes from a running joke Hickey tells about coming home to find his wife in bed with the iceman. The play follows the residents of Harry's saloon as they wait for Hickey to burst in with his rollicking joy, ready to tie one on. Instead, Hickey shows up sober and tries to convince the boys at Harry's to join him. He insists they need to drop their dreams and face life fully—as he is now doing, or so he says. Bless their hearts, they give it a try.

As a recovering alcoholic, I seek out movies and plays about the subject. Even classics such as The Lost Weekend and The Days of Wine and Roses get much of it wrong. But O'Neill never gets it wrong. He understands the soul-crushing demoralization of the disease, down to the gritty and often misunderstood details, such as the fact that many—if not most—alcoholics begin adulthood with success.

The crowd that is hiding from life in Harry's saloon are mostly former success stories, from a Harvard graduate to war heroes and business owners. As the malady progresses, alcoholics begin to isolate and ultimately find themselves in a world of suffering where they oscillate between depression over the past and anxiety over the future—and no relief in the present.

This is a sometimes honest crew at Harry's. In the third act, many of them talk honestly about how they have blamed their drinking on some form of trauma—such as the death of a wife or a business failure—but in reality, the trauma was just an excuse to drink.

I first saw The Iceman Cometh years before I got sober. Its ugly truth haunted me. Watching it sober was gratifying, knowing there is a way out of the hopelessness, while also appreciating the stunning accuracy of O'Neill's portrait of that hopelessness.

In the program, director Cady notes that he first became acquainted with The Iceman Cometh while studying at UC Berkeley. "I promised myself I would one day confront the storms raging inside me and direct Mr. O'Neill's journey to the bottom of the sea." Cady is getting this chance at the Vortex.

Cady does double duty in the production, playing Larry Slide, a former anarchist who functions as the moral compass for the group. With this crowd, however, the moral center is corrupt. Instead of feeding pipe dreams, Larry carries a deep pessimism that leaves him utterly demoralized. He's the one honest character, and his honesty is a matter of staring death in the face and seeing nothing but death.

Larry takes part in an ongoing conversation with the younger Don Parritt (Michael Weppler) who is riddled with guilt over turning his anarchist mother into the authorities. Don is the one non-drinker in the room. He is trying to resolve his guilt, but Larry offers nothing but gloom, leaving the young man lost, isolated and hopeless.

The beauty that lives within The Iceman Cometh is its uncompromised and unflinching look at life without hope. We're trained to believe that where's there's life, there's hope. Looking into the depth of complete hopelessness is startling and oddly beautiful. It's like looking at a film of the depths of the ocean. You don't want to go down there, but it's a powerful vision that comes from someone who did.

While the cast works well as an ensemble, there are a few leads who carry the heart of the story. These roles are particularly well cast. Cady gathers some of our city's best actors to render these dark characters. Ray Orley as Harry Hope is fabulous—as always. Likewise with Shortell as Hickey. Other terrific performances include Marc Lynch as Joe Mott, David Bommarito as Rocky Pioggi, and Cady himself as Slade. Thanks, James Cady, for getting around to completing your promise.

The Iceman Cometh, by Eugene O'Neill and directed by James Cady, will run at The Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE, through April 9, 2017. The show starts at 7:00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2:00 pm on Sundays. General admission tickets are $22, $19 for ATG members, and $15 for students and those in an entertainment union. You can buy tickets online at vortexabq.org or by phone at 247-8600.


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