The Iceman Cometh
Discomfort. Exhaustion. Curiosity. Ennui. These are but a few of the emotions the audience delves into during the four hour-plus staging of Eugene O’Neill’s "The Iceman Cometh" at The Goodman Theatre.
From the initial minutes of this part-enigmatic, part-existentialist play, the audience finds itself tepidly stepping into the lives of a "houseful" of derelict drunks and prostitutes at Hope’s House saloon and boarding house during the wee hours of what is resoundingly a broken phonograph’s paralleled conversation and life.
The play, written in 1939 but set in 1912, is set within the historical context of revolutionary and emotional embankments, lost causes, futuristic and unmet personal agendas, and other-blamed drunkenness and reclusion from society.
In Act I, O’Neill presents the audience with the lively isolation of his quirky characters that lays an ideal framework for the highly anticipated arrival of a fellow drunken playmate named Hickey (a caricaturized salesmen who comes annually for the owner of the establishment, Harry Hope’s, birthday -- bearing money, gifts, and an attempted fulfilling of the group’s unquenchable thirst for spirits and regret).
The group awaits Hickey’s arrival as an other-worldly escape and revelry, yet what he brings is not only unexpected, but, to them, most confounding: the revelation of sobriety, truth, and an internal acceptance of one’s shadow sides that leads to an overwhelming sense of peace and freedom.
And, as to be expected, the group, still ashen with their fears, angers, "pipe dreams," and love of denial are not readily impressed.
What ensues is Hickey’s attempt to transform his peers into the sober freedom he has acquired; a spiritual experience of sorts, and to release them of the lies and emotional falsehoods that bind them both together and to their own misery.
In order to understand the deeper impact and, what, to some, may be a surprising culturally significant component to this play is an understanding of the historical evolution of the commonly known program, Alcoholics Anonymous. Upon further investigation of the roots of this semi-autobiographical work, one finds that the play was penned the very same year that the "Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous" (arguably a brilliant piece of literature in its own right) was published.
Interesting, too, is that the story of Hickey parallels, to the tee; the same spiritual awakening described by Dr. Bob in the "Big Book" -- a spiritual experience that allows him to find sobriety and, more than that, to spend his days seeking to help save others like himself.
Thus, it is within this cultural and historical context, and the knowing that Eugene O’Neill was both reared by addicts and struggled with addiction in his own right that, perhaps, he found the forum of his literary genius, to share his allied research and experience with mere mortals of the addictive life.
And so, how does Robert Fall’s company and portrayal of "The Iceman Cometh" do in imparting such a profound and important message? Well, then, that depends.
If one were to dissect this production on sheer enjoyability, then, Falls’ presentation inexorably fails. However, in such a masterful and challenging work, enjoyability is clearly beside the point. "The Iceman Cometh" is not an escapist piece of work, nor is it a template for fashion and funnies; it is a literal witnessing of pain, deceit, disdain, and self-loathing and the boredom and exhaustion that accompany them. And, in that vein, Falls and his cast have put forth a brilliant body of work.
Let’s start with casting. Brian Dennehy (Larry Slade), who plays the uncomfortable antithesis to Hickey’s enthusiasm, is an acting god. His talent is such, however, that it teases out the rest of the cast -- who is brilliant in their own right -- as just not quite up to par.
And the discomfort this creates, in and of itself, is a tremendous centerpiece for a play that is intended to be about anxiety and missed connections; and, so, whether or not intentional, this evident disparity actually works.
Nathan Lane, who plays the highly anticipated and spiritually-realized Hickey, plays the salesmen with such prowess that one would argue this very role was written for him. His innate ability to transfer revelry and goodness -- and sheer likability -- all work to make him a desirable allure for the empowerment and freedom we can all find when facing the ugly truth about ourselves. In short, his authenticity in this role makes the audience want to change.
While veterans like John Judd (Piet Wetjoen), Larry Neumann, Jr. (Ed Mosher), and John Douglas Thompson (Joe Mott) are standouts, Slavatore Inzerillo (Rocky Pioggi) shines with star power as the pimp/bartender who helps narrate and humanize the groups’ collective lies and dreams.
The set, both simplistically eerie and strategically brilliant, as well as the integral-to-the-plot lighting design by Kevin Depinet and Natasha Katz, respectively, are worthy integrations, as, without them, the groups’ stories and shadows would be merely plot points without soul.
And then, back to Falls. Here, he has taken an indefatigable piece of writing and essentially forced down the audience’s throat that life and addiction and truth and anger are both deflating and conquerable, yet, in their midst, evoke a desire to run out of the room.
In short, if you leave this play feeling refreshed, enlivened, and ready to conquer the world, you haven’t done your job, because this cast and crew have tirelessly and masterfully set the stage for you to leave feeling drained and, perhaps, even miserable. And in that experience, you may, for a fleeting moment, know the burden that addiction and regret can place on a man’s soul.
"The Iceman Cometh" runs through June 17 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, Chicago. For info or tickets call 312-443-3800 or visit www.goodmantheatre.org
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