Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

John Mahoney and Tracy Letts in
The Dresser
at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Also see John's review of George Gershwin Alone

After seeing John Mahoney's performance in The Dresser, I'm having confused thoughts about the recently cancelled TV series Frasier. Should I resent it for keeping Mahoney busy in the same supporting sitcom role for eleven years or should I be grateful it gave him the financial independence to return to Chicago and do as much theatre as he wants? Since we can't change the past, I'm going to appreciate the fact that today we can enjoy the chance to see Mr. Mahoney demonstrate his consummate professionalism in this revival of the Ronald Harwood play, which ran on Broadway in the 1981-82 season. Though I'd seen Mahoney on stage at Steppenwolf twice before (in 1998's The Man Who Came to Dinner and this Spring's I Never Sang for My Father), seeing his performance in The Dresser on September 28th was my first experience seeing him play a part in which he could display the kind of range this role offers.

As Sir, a "third-rate" actor-manager of a Shakespearean company touring England during the Battle of Britain, Mahoney's character enters in a confused and demented state, gradually becomes functional enough to perform Lear while under attack by the Nazis, and offstage, attempts to settle scores with his common-law wife/co-star, acknowledge the long-unrequited love of his stage manager, and flirt with an aspiring young actress. His states range from catatonic to fearful, from angry to lascivious. He's entirely humbled by the fragility of life at times, convinced he's a god at others. Through it all, he's a man alternately coming to terms with his life and resisting an acceptance of its approaching end. Though the type of self-absorbed actor Sir represents is hardly a unique character, Mahoney's skill keeps Sir from becoming a stereotype and earns our empathy for Sir's intense anxiety. While the comedic ability Mahoney displayed in a decade of playing Martin Crane on Frasier is used in this play, he proves himself to be not just an above-average sitcom actor, but arguably one of America's finest working stage actors.

This piece also has a second meaty lead role, but one with quite different demands on the actor. While Sir is never quiet about his emotions, his dresser Norman must keep his just below the surface. Norman maintains a level of humility and apparent deference to Sir and others of authority in the company, while knowing full well he is the real power behind the "throne." He alone is able to bring Sir back from a bout of confusion that had put him in the hospital on a day he is scheduled to perform as Lear. With the utmost subtlety and tact, Norman guides Sir through the rituals of applying makeup and dressing that will bring the actor back to a level of lucidity sufficient to go on stage, all the while convincing Sir that he is taking these actions autonomously.

Norman is intensely loyal to his employer of the past 16 years, and in fact seems to have little purpose in life beyond serving this master. As Norman, Tracy Letts creates a unique character from tiny details, and refrains from making any easy choices with the character, like exaggerating his effeminacy. Norman may be a closeted gay, but to even acknowledge his orientation would probably seem too self-centered for this man who lives only to serve another. If Sir is all text, Norman is all subtext and Letts finds a way to communicate it to us as Norman hides his real feelings from the other characters on stage.

In similar fashion, Peggy Roeder, as Madge, Sir's stage manager for 20 years, maintains a comically hard and businesslike shell, while suggesting the hurt caused by Sir's refusal to acknowledge her feelings for him. Mary Beth Fisher plays Sir's lover and co-star, known simply as "her ladyship." She displays an obvious affection and care for Sir, though she refuses to go along with the fantasies of Sir and Norman who will not even acknowledge the notion that Sir is mortal.

The detailed, realistic set created by Broadway designer Santo Loquasto is simply a knockout. According to assistant director Ben Vicellio, who spoke in a post-show talkback, it was based on Loquasto's designs for an aborted New York revival. The set uses a turntable to seamlessly move between Sir's elegant dressing room and a highly detailed collection of backstage locales, including a stage door hallway, the wings, the stage manager's station, and on an upper level, the lighting board and a scenery loft. The set alone contributes much of the "love letter to theater" embodied in this play.

That theme, though, is secondary to a more universal one of our struggle to find meaning and maintain purpose in life, even when life appears to be ending. Director Amy Morton, an accomplished actress and Steppenwolf company member herself, has created a clear statement of these themes and blended the efforts of an immensely talented cast and creative team toward that message. Norman refers to the idea of a theater company as family on several occasions, and with some irony. Watching the product of this Steppenwolf team, you believe in that concept in a totally non-ironic way. Let's hope that's enough to keep Mr. Mahoney in talented families like this one so he's not tempted to return to another one on TV.

The Dresser runs through November 14, 2004 at Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. Tickets are $20 to $60 and are available online at or by phone at 312-335-1650.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson

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