Category: Archive

Irish Rep resurrects Leonard drama

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

A LIFE, by Hugh Leonard. Directed by Charlotte Moore. Featuring Fritz Weaver and Pauline Flanagan. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC. Through Aug. 12. Once in a while, a gifted acting ensemble, guided by a talented director, can reverse the fortunes of a neglected, dismissed, or even disdained work of dramatic fiction. That’s pretty much the case with the Irish Repertory Theatre’s glittering new production of "A Life," by Dublin playwright Hugh Leonard, best known as the author of the 1978 Broadway hit "Da." To appreciate the impact of the Irish Rep’s success with "A Life," it may help to have a bit of background on "Da," which tells the story of the playwright’s adoptive father, a groundskeeper on a Dalkey estate owned by a wealthy Protestant family. In "Da," there is a stiff-backed, but secretly sympathetic secondary character called simply "Drumm," an individual who becomes the first significant employer of the young boy whose coming-of-age story the play tells. In 1979, while "Da" was still running on Broadway, Leonard wrote "A Life," a comedy-drama in which the ascerbic employer, Drumm, now equipped with a Christian name, Desmond, was the central figure. "A Life," first done at the Abbey Theatre with Cyril Cusack in the lead, was produced on Broadway with Roy Dotrice as Drumm. It failed quickly, having played just 64 performances and eight previews, and was quickly forgotten, except by a few regional theaters in search of vehicles with which to showcase their aging character actors. The Irish Rep, which has produced three other plays by Hugh Leonard in past seasons, has found the serio-comic heart of "A Life," striking the precisely right tone to make the writer’s exploration of the existence of his "difficult" pivotal figure resonate into striking, memorable theater. Director Charlotte Moore deserves credit for having cast the play brilliantly, which can’t have been easy since the work’s four young characters must evolve into their elderly embodiments, with the audience watching both ends of the corporal seesaw, all evening and frequently at the same time. All eight members of Moore’s cast are exemplary, but special mention must be made of Fritz Weaver, who plays Drumm in the play’s present tense, the final months of his life, while he’s struggling to find the key to his own unsatisfactory existence. At the same time, actress Pauline Flanagan, currently riding high as the winner of this year’s Laurence Olivier Award as Best Supporting Actress for her participation in the London production of playwright Frank McGuinness’s "Dolly West’s Kitchen," has to be singled out for her unforgettable work as Mary, the Dalkey girl Drumm didn’t marry. Weaver, one of the most underappreciated major actors in the American theater, came to the Irish Rep for the first time only last season, when he played the title role in G.B. Shaw’s "Don Juan in Hell," while Flanagan has been a Rep regular since the group was founded over a decade ago. The match-up of Weaver and Flanagan, as estranged characters attempting a form of sudden reconciliation after years of alienation as Drumm learns he is dying, turns out to be magical. As Desmond Drumm and Mary, after decades of marriage to the long-suffering Lar, short for Lar Kearns, spar, parry and thrust, the Irish Rep stage gives off sparks of a rare intensity, almost threatening to catch fire from the sheer power of the performing. These are great actors at the peak of their craft and fully fit to hold their own against the best work being done on any stage in the universe. If Weaver and Flanagan stand out in an unusually strong cast, it’s because Hugh Leonard has furnished them with the raw red meat required and they’ve supplied the incisors. But everyone is extraordinary, including Jarlath Conroy as the middle-aged Lar, always ready to forgive and almost equally prepared to misunderstand, if it will ease a difficult situation. Equally fine is Paddy Croft as Dolly, Drumm’s adoring wife, secretly visiting Mary on Fridays for coffee and commiseration, without her husband’s knowledge or permission. The youthful foursome couldn’t be improved upon, with Derdriu Ring, who debuted at the Rep last season as Teresa, the bordello slave of Brendan Behan’s "The Hostage," particularly outstanding as Mibs, the virginal version of the woman who will become Mary. The fire Ring releases at moment in the play’s past tense supplies a good deal of the fuel for actress Flanagan’s extraordinary work later on. Similarly, John Keating’s repressed adolescent intellectual lays the groundwork for the mature Drumm as shaped by the splendid Weaver. In slightly less clearly defined roles, Heather O’Neill and David Costelloe, the latter making an impressive Rep debut, as the larval versions of the mature Dolly and Lar, grace the stage with distinctly appealing vitality and grace. Set in what Hugh Leonard, the pen name of a writer known to his friends and intimates as Jack Keyes Byrne, calls "Dalkey, a small town just south of Dublin," "A Life" is really a drawing room play requiring a pair of parlors, one in the past and the other in the present. Designer Dan Kuchar has cleverly used colors and tones close to those of the Rep’s auditorium for his set, giving the stage the extremely useful illusion of being larger than it actually is. At other times, projections and transparencies lend the overall production a welcome sense of scope, augmented by Gregory Cohen’s lighting and the sound design provided by Murmod, Inc. Director Moore’s handling of her actors stresses clarity and consistency at all times, which goes a great distance toward making Leonard’s older folks jibe with their younger selves as closely as possible, which goes a very long way indeed toward making the text work with the cumulative power it achieves. Make no mistake, this is a wonderful production of a vastly neglected play, and it is to the Irish Rep’s great credit that it is very clear that there is vibrant, pulsing life in "A Life." This is precisely the sort of production the Irish Repertory Theatre was created to do. Most definitely, it should not be missed, for the wealth of intelligence, wit and genuine feeling in which it abounds.

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