The Iceman Cometh

by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Robert Falls
Featuring Brian Dennehy, Nathan Lane, Kate Arrington, John Judd
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago
May 3, 2012 — June 17, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 13, 2012

[This is a review of one of five shows I saw in lovely Chicago during the June 2012 summer meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association.  I attended as a civilian yet had my notepad in hand  — so in a pause between other reviewing obligations I provide my thoughts on a piece of Chicago theatrical wonderment.]

(L-R) Salvatore Inzerillo, Brian Dennehy, Nathan Lane, Lee Wilkof, and Stephen Ouimette. Photo: Liz Lauren.

Four acts and four plus hours and three intermissions and this is the evening of a travel day. Yeah, I’m wondering whether I have the stamina. But this old Chicago gal (well, Midwestern by birth and Chicagoan by recent residence during last 1/2 of the first decade of this century) and a lover of Chicago theatre and this particular beautiful theatre building and theatre company quickly discovers all kinds of energy for Eugene O’Neill in the hands of director Robert Falls, in the lovely largest multi-tiered expansive Goodman stage. The Iceman Cometh. Lives heard, bemoaned, redeemed, relieved, resolved in a bar over a two-day period in lower Manhattan in 1912. We spend some time with these people and these lives and they change us.

Saloon proprietor Harry Hope (Stephen Ouimette) and his bartenders Rocky (Salvatore Inzerillo) and Chuck (Marc Grapey) keep the men and women vaguely corralled, and for the most part stand aside while the stories spill. In O’Neill’s evocation of a lower Manhattan, Larry (Brian Dennehy) espouses anarchist ideas along with a few other cronies, Willy (Cody Proctor for my performance) reveals his Harvard law background and his hopeless helpless current jobless state, and the rest of the boys alternately sleep off their boozy doses or awake to joke, fight, tell familiar or new stories, and for a time wait for their occasional out-of-town visitor Hickey (Nathan Lane).  Life doesn’t change much during these hours in a well-lubricated bar full of long-time deep drinkers, but O’Neill has provided a twist with possibilities, in a tragic comic vein.  Our party guy Hickey, who was always the reason for a big party when he whirled into town, has shifted the focus of his charismatic style — he’s given up the booze for reasons of his own and his old comrades try, one by one, to emulate his example. The play’s well-paced arc puts us in the middle of the night or the middle of the morning over a few days of the eternal twilight of the bar, except for the bright sunlight of the midmorning featured in Act Three (and the production photograph selected to illustrate this review).  Hope animates, some lives move on a square or two, others fall back, most stay on course.  The Iceman Cometh.

These are wars of words and shards of lives that redeem or devastate.  Chicago’s acting pool is represented resoundingly on the stage in this production including John Judd as Piet the Boer War veteran, Kate Arrington as Cora, one of the bevy of three streetwalkers who work out of the saloon, and Larry Neumann as Ed, one of the bar familiars.  I beam enthralled from my third tier box hard by the stage looking down on the lip of the stage and from an angle from which I miss some of the upstage stage pictures but I’m not grousing — I’m thrilled to be in the house.  The only qualm I feel with the production has to do with the casting of gentle, comedic Nathan Lane as our charismatic reformed drunk Hickey.  Lane’s depths don’t convince; his histrionics seem hysterical rather than powerful; his tide-turning, history revealing monologue deep in the play falls flat.  I applaud his attempt and I do appreciate him as a performer.  In this production ensconced with the powerful leading and ensemble actors as his ensemble in this production, he is outpowered and outpaced.

With all that, in simple staging and an evocative rather than painstakingly literal set design, O’Neill has been honored in Chicago. Yet again.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 26, 2012)

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