Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

A Life
Northlight Theatre

Also see John's reviews of Beauty and the Beast and An Evening with Christine Ebersole

Penny Slusher and John Mahoney
Just three of the more than 18 plays by Irish playwright Hugh Leonard, who died in 2009, were produced on Broadway. A Life, the last of those three and a sequel of sorts to his more successful Da, concerns Desmond Drumm, a civil servant nearing retirement and looking back on his life. The son of a harsh schoolmaster in a small town outside Dublin, Drumm has always valued intellect and scholarship. He sees himself as a man of high moral values and standards, and judges those in his life as harshly as his father judged him. A health scare together with his retirement just ten weeks away causes Drumm to re-evaluate his life and make amends with some old friends—Lar Kearns and Lar's wife Mary—to whom he's not spoken in six years. The action alternates between 1977 and 1937, when Desmond dated Mary but lost her to Lar and eventually married their friend Dolly.

Drumm has a great intellect, impossible standards for his friends and a nasty wit that he employs whenever they fall short. Example: in describing the older Lar's lack of a work ethic, Drumm notes that "the man's survival without lifting a finger makes the mystery of the Hoy Trinity look like a card trick" and says the heavy drinker sees the world "through a Guinness glass darkly." Desmond is not completely aware of how thoroughly his words sting, even hearing feedback such as Lar's hypothesis that Desmond is unable to get drunk because "the acid in your system would nullify the Jameson's." In the flashbacks to 1937, we're shown how Desmond lost Mary to Lar by pushing her toward a level of intellectualism she felt unable to achieve. She instead marries the carefree Lar because she fears a life with Desmond would leave her no room for herself. And with Lar, she at least is able to laugh. We're also shown an incident in which Desmond is heckled while giving a campaign speech for an election in school. The humiliation leads to him avoiding any risk-taking that might result in social disapproval and, as a result, he spends his entire career in a pencil-pushing civil service job that he hates.

Desmond's professional frustrations appear to have made him even more disagreeable over the forty years. He's sarcastic and dismissive to his adoring wife Dolly (though she puts up with his behavior all the same). Upon paying his first visit in six years to the home of friends Mary and Lar, Mary tells him how "a cup of cold water would disagree with you." Her kindest description is that he's " ... an Irish summer of a man ... sunny skies one day and rain the next."

As poetic and funny as these words may seem on the page (or a computer screen), they don't have the same impact on stage. Leonard's script is talky, and the 1977 scenes are quite static (the 1937 scenes, in which the characters are in their twenties, have more motion, especially from an animated Rob Belushi as the rowdy Lar). I'm not sure there's much director B.J. Jones could do with the 1977 scenes, which are all about four adults in their sixties sitting (or standing) and talking. It might have helped to forego some authenticity in the Irish brogues in favor of greater clarity, particularly given the many idioms and unfamiliar terminology in Leonard's dialogue. It takes great concentration and active listening to follow the play, thanks to the heavy dialect and dearth of visual cues to help tell the story or establish character.

To Leonard's credit, his writing takes no easy ways out. It's honest and realistic but, as a result, anti-dramatic. Drumm is such a repressed man—always in control, expressing disapproval only through wittily sarcastic remarks that his less clever friends and wife can hardly counter—that he creates little tension among the characters. Chicago treasure John Mahoney plays Drumm quite tightly wound up but controlled. Perhaps there may have been a way to give the character more bite—deliver his barbs with even more venom. Mahoney reflects the surface-level emotions Drumm would be willing to reveal but doesn't go far enough in suggesting the underlying unspoken emotions to engage us more fully. The same can be said of the younger Drumm, played by Matt Schwader.

The other characters are less complex and less tragic, and played quite believably. Bradley Armacost as the chronically unemployed Lar, seems as carefree as his younger self, at peace with himself and the imperfectness of his world, complaining only that "on unemployment you don't get retirement." Linda Kimbrough plays the older Mary as still carrying resentment toward Desmond, though apparently without any doubt about whether or not she might have been better off to stay with him. As her younger counterpart, Melanie Keller shows both Mibs' (as she's called at that age) attraction to Desmond and her resistance to stretching her boundaries beyond the easier demands and more familiar structure of being with Lar. Penny Slusher's adult Dolly is absolutely saintly—much better than a mean old coot like Desmond deserves, and her younger counterpart Dorothy is played by Joanne Dubach as equally kind and generous.

A harsh, cold and foggy feeling evokes the coast of Ireland (and of Chicago in March, for that matter), thanks to the production designers. Jack Magaw's set places a large bandshell in front of a stone retaining wall on the seashore, with just a few pieces of furniture to suggest Lar and Mary's house in 1977 and a few more to suggest Mary's home in 1937. Rachel Laritz's earth-toned costumes include authentic-looking clothes for these low to middle class Irishmen, with a simple and inexpensive business suit for the civil servant Desmond. J.R. Lederle's lighting gives a dull haze suggestive of the fogginess of both Ireland and memory.

A Life is honest and genuine, both on the page and in this production. I'm finding it more satisfying to reflect upon than it was to watch, though, and I suspect this may be a piece of writing that is impossible to compellingly stage.

A Life will play through April 25, 2010, at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, Illinois. Tickets are available by phone, 847.673.6300, or online at

Photo: Michael Brosilow

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area

-- John Olson

Privacy Policy