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Chicago Arts Scene Commentary

for the Week of May 14, 2001

Theater Review:



For the inaugural production of its 2001-02 season, Irish Repertory Theatre has selected a play about one man facing his mortality – or is it really a play about new beginnings? In "A Life," Irish playwright Hugh Leonard raises startling questions about the often erratic and deceptive timeline of our existence. Then he entwines past and present – often confounding the hackneyed adages of capricious youth and aged wisdom – by juxtaposing his characters’ younger and older selves.

But Leonard (who first introduced the cantankerous civil servant, Desmond Drumm, in his more famous earlier play, "Da") is also hampered by his rather literal and static structure. The split-screen nature of the piece, which moves between 1937 and 1977, certainly offers us glimpses into how each character’s best or worse personality traits intensified or how they underwent marked change over time. Yet it also locks them into rigid parallels, some more effectively realized than others.

The action centers around Drumm, a dyspeptic, educated Dublin "pencil pusher" who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness – the catalyst for a reexamination of his generally unfulfilling life. He proceeds to make amends with his first love, Mary, who wed the seemingly irresponsible, fun-loving Kearns. But the pair continues to bicker about their diametrically opposed world views (Drumm’s tightly wound morality vs. Mary’s spunky free-spiritedness). We also witness Drumm’s subtle brow-beating of his scattered wife Dolly.

Most intriguing is not so much how Drumm’s and Kearns’ young counterparts foreshadow their identical senior selves but how Mary and Dolly tragically reverse roles. The teenage Mary is an impassioned spitfire who would rather follow her heart than bury herself in books the way her dour suitor Drumm does. The moralistic Drumm (who wields his education like a schoolmaster’s stick) loses Mary through his inability to act on his emotions – the sad result of repeated beatings by his father to make him study.

So he spends most of his life resenting Kearns, who wiles away the hours in a pub yet has a cheery, forgiving disposition. Nevertheless, the older Mary – crippled from an accident in which her husband unknowingly backed his car into her – has lost much of her vibrancy and intense curiosity. She seems beaten down by life. Dolly, on the other hand, was drawn to Drumm’s mind and was quite an accomplished scholar. But, over the years, she continued to recede into the background – growing shallow and flighty – to make way for Drumm’s imposing intellect.

Director Richard Block, while challenged by the inactive limits of Leonard’s script (restricted to two cramped playing areas), has assembled an extraordinary cast. Daniel J. Travanti leads the beautifully nuanced ensemble with a memorable performance of delicate irascibility. His Drumm is no mere curmudgeon; he’s a man undone by his own sensitivity and sense of self-importance. Only later in life does his Drumm realize the meaning of self-worth.

Ray Wild is particularly impressive in his sincere, heartfelt portrayal of Kearns – a role that could easily degenerate into a cartoonish gas bag. Deanna Dunagan achingly evokes Mary’s suppressed rage; and Brigid Duffy’s Dolly gently reveals the chirpy hesitancy of a woman who has lost her identity.

Their youthful parallels illuminate the stage: Alyson Green’s anxious and defiant Mary; Kristina Martin’s empathetic and introspective Dolly; Blaine D. Vedros’ unbridled Kearns (who uncannily resembles Ray Wild); and Brian J. Gill in a heartbreakingly real performance as Drumm, determined to make something of himself but hindered by his own nagging self-doubts and self-righteous defense mechanisms. •

"A Life" runs through May 20 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: $22-$42. Call 773-871-3000.

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