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Chicago by John Olson

The Long Red Road
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's reviews of Twelve Angry Men and The 101 Dalmatians Musical

The Long Red Road
Greta Honold and Tom Hardy
Sam is a chronic alcoholic with so much self-loathing he entreats his girlfriend Annie to tell him she hates him as they're having sex in the opening scene (dimly lit, it should be noted) of the play. It's an arresting action that is followed by a long, naturalistic scene in which we see Sam's total entrapment in his disease. He drinks constantly while awake and can't manage to sleep in their bed, only pass out in front of the TV. Annie goes about the routine of dutifully turning off the set once he's unconscious.

It takes the full hour-long first act to set up the premise of this new drama by Brett C. Leonard, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. By act's end, we see that Sam has good reason for hating himself. (If you want to experience these revelations while viewing the play, read no further, though all were told in pre-opening publicity for the show). Nine years earlier, while drunk, he drove his family car into a head-on collision with another vehicle, killing one of his young daughters and causing his wife to lose both her legs. He's made no attempt toward redemption, nor is his wife Sandy, who's been living with Sam's brother Bob and Sam's daughter Tasha for the past nine years, willing to grant him any forgiveness. There's also the suggestion of a pedophilic attraction between Bob and Tasha, who's now 13 years old and uneasily transitioning into sexual maturity.

These facts are revealed gradually as we also learn of Annie's unselfish devotion to Sam. The two live in a small apartment on a South Dakota Indian reservation where Annie teaches elementary school. She's a smart woman, clearly with a strong sense of compassion and social justice, and is touchingly played by the young Chicago actress Greta Honold. Still, we never are shown by the playwright exactly what she finds in Sam to merit such love. Sam has occasional moments of kindness toward her but is perpetually in an alcoholic stupor, spending his free time at a bar where he jaws with his only other friend, the bartender Clifton (Marcos Akiaten), who's also chief of the Lakota tribe. Sam is quite convincingly lost in his alcoholism as played by the hot 32-year-old British actor Tom Hardy, working for the first time in a U.S. production. Leonard gives Hardy little else to work with, though. Sam's stuck in his disease and shows only the faintest hope of moving on when his daughter and brother, on Annie's urging, visit from Kansas to try to reconcile him with his family.

Though the play transitions from the naturalism of the first act into some more traditional forward motion in the second act—dealing with the visit from Sam's brother and daughter and the aftermath of that visit—not much of a journey is made on this road. Sam is unable to change and, while he shows some kindness to Tasha that impacts her in positive ways, his downward slide continues. In sum, this is a picture of the damage of alcoholism that might have been better told as a painting than a drama. It's essentially one point in time—a moment with a history that created it and with future repercussions resulting from it, but what's on stage is only that moment. While Sam and the people affected by his alcoholism are clearly and touchingly drawn by Hoffman, (there are hints of a legacy of family abuse in Sam and Bob's family as well), Leonard brings little if any new insight into these themes, which have been treated so many times already in recent contemporary drama.

Hoffman and Leonard have other problems as well. The blocking is frequently confusing. The first act alternates between scenes of Sam, Annie and Clifton in South Dakota and Bob, Sandy and Tasha in Kansas. In the realistic set by Eugene Lee, so detailed you feel you're in the midst of the prairie in spite of the subway rumbling underneath the Goodman, the Kansas scenes are mostly on a proscenium stage with the South Dakota action primarily on a thrust stage jutting out into the audience. Sometimes the mini-sets function as both places—there's a single kitchen that serves both homes just as the same front door is used for both. The playing area primarily used for Bob and Sandy's home is the living room of Annie's apartment in the second act. It's okay to think that this may be meant to show how these five lives all have impacted each other, but that's a fairly obvious point to make and at times it just makes it harder to follow the narrative.

Leonard's characters are mostly unsatisfying. If not mostly one-dimensional—Sam's constantly drunk and depressed while Sandra (Katy Sullivan) is in a state of perpetual resentment—Annie, Bob and Tasha are inconsistently drawn. The saintly Annie lashes out at Bob in ways that seem out of sync with her character. Tasha (Fiona Robert) is alternately rebellious and angry toward Bob and Sandy but suddenly sweet and forgiving with Sam. Chris McGarry's Bob is confusing, giving us no consistent subtext of the man's conflicted feelings toward Sam, Sandy or Tasha. Only Akiaten creates a character that has both complexity and coherence. He finds both the tough and sympathetic sides of Clifton, a recovering alcoholic with wisdom and compassion. He's the spiritual center of the play, but he has little stage time and the least significance to the story.

Certainly the considerable talents involved in this production have given us some emotional and memorable images. We're touched by Annie's compassion, by Clifton's wisdom and by the depiction of alcoholism's brutally destructive power. It's an honest and uncompromising effort but ultimately a journey that takes too long to tell a story from which we learn too little we didn't already know.

The Long Red Road will be performed through March 21, 2010 in the Goodman's Owen Bruner Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. Tickets are available at www.GoodmanTheatre.org or by calling 312.443.3800.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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