The Iceman Cometh
The cold grip of truth reveals all
|Goodman Theatre presents|
|The Iceman Cometh|
Review by Clint May
When the Bard wrote of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeping in a petty pace and tales told by idiots, he may just as well have been describing the lives of the denizens of a New York saloon in Eugene O’Neill’s epic The Iceman Cometh. For these men and women, yesterday is a blurry shadow while the days to come stretch out into infinite, propped up on booze and endlessly rationalized pipe dreams. They are living in the epilogues of stories where they can’t remember if there ever was a climax. The relative safety of hiding from reality in decades of liquor is about to be infiltrated by one of their own—a traveling salesman whose annual visits are the only high-point of their otherwise desolate lives.
Before his arrival, we are introduced to those who wait upon his largess. The proprietor is the ironically named Harry Hope (Stephen Oulmette), an agoraphobic old man who hasn’t left his flophouse in the twenty years since his wife’s death. He dispenses free liquor to his fellow compatriots in exile from the real world—streetwalkers, army officers, anarchists and more. Mutually ensnared in their own miasma of rotgut and delusions of grandeur, his saloon has become the last port of harbor before the world drops off completely. The “fool-osopher” Larry Slade (Brian Dennehy) is the most tragic of all—a former anarchist who fell from his impassioned ideals because he couldn’t stop seeing both sides of every coin. Trapped in a nether region of his own vacillation, he tries to remain adamantly in the grandstand of life in an aloof attempt to avoid having to confront his guilt for abandoning the cause. Neither completely a hell nor completely a heaven, Harry’s saloon is more of a limbo for lost souls.
We meet them in the summer of 1912 on the night of the arrival of their best pal Theodore “Hickey” Hickman (Nathan Lane). He is the only of them that lives in the real world, traveling up and down his East Coast sales territory peddling wares. He does this quite successfully with his uncanny ability to peer into men and see their dreams, then buy into it with them just long enough to get them to buy something back in gratitude. Despite his success, for years untold he has drifted back to this backwater limbo for a few nights of debauchery and drinking where every bottle is on him, every story is met with laughter and every dream met with confidence that tomorrow’s the day it’ll come true.
This year the Hickey holiday happens to fall on Harry’s 60th birthday. Hickey’s arrival won’t be the same this year, however. Instead of the jovial devil-may-care of the past, he has become a harbinger of that most dangerous of things: the truth. At first, his friends can’t comprehend that he has quit drinking and given up his scoundrel ways. When the “joke” reveals itself to be all too real, they see that Hickey has truly come to proselytize his friends using his own recent revelation as a template for salvation. He desperately wants to use his short visit to pull his friends—particularly Harry—out of their limbo and into heaven, but not without a necessary layover in hell. One by one, they fall under the sway of his sermon of releasing the pipe dream and accepting the true nature of themselves with no blinders or barriers against the brutality of reality. Only then, he says, can they be truly free of the guilt of yesterday’s regret and the pressure of tomorrow’s dreams. His greatest nemesis to this mission will be Larry, pulled ever reluctantly from his grandstand to engage in a life he wants to end. The resulting disruption is a gripping study of what happens when the walls of cognitive dissonance come crashing down and dreams turn to ashes in the harsh light of day.
O’Neill turns the screw slowly, letting us become invested in these pitiful paupers before eviscerating them. It’s not an easy work to behold at times, and you may find yourself squirming in your seat as you recognize your own pipe dreams and wonder about Hickey’s sermon of accepting reality as the path to freedom. O’Neill explores the nature of existential nihilism and bleakly sympathizes with those who cling to dreams they never could or would attempt to fulfill. The final eulogy for the pipe dream is a conflicting tornado—a feedback loop of love and forgiveness, acceptance and rejection that characterizes the human condition as a conflict that absolutely requires delusion to maintain itself.
As an ensemble, the cast of Iceman is an award-worthy marvel of balance and harmony in the midst of so many award-winning talents and commanding presences. Brian Dennehy, who played the role of Hickey some 20 years ago, takes up the opposing role in Larry Slade. He’s flawless as a bitter man seemingly made of granite, slumping through a life he doesn’t know how to end. Beneath his grizzled exterior is a past of tortured guilt and self recrimination seething only fitfully to the surface when life threatens to pull him out of his revelry. As Hickey, Nathan Lane is a true revelation. Anyone familiar with Lane’s past work will note that a smarmy traveling salesman is a perfect fit for a man of his charismatic charms and plaintive eyes. Those opening scenes where he’s still the Hickey they all know and love are wonderful in their own right, but it’s the slow unraveling from the certainty of his new found salvation that demonstrates Lane’s range in a way few may see coming. Director Robert Falls keeps the near five-hour production tightly focused. This is no mean feat in a work that contains so many monumental ideas and actors of such high quality. Even the set design by Kevin Depinet (inspired by John Conklin) is a marvel to behold, turning the saloon from a shallow bas relief to a terrifying tunnel to a vast engulfing void in perfect symbolic lockstep.
Perhaps one of the greatest plays of the 20th century by one of its greatest playwrights, The Iceman Cometh is a cautionary tale and a contradiction in and of itself. At once a scathing indictment and reluctant ode to pipe dreams as the crutch that makes the despair bearable in the detritus of consciousness. It couldn’t be anything but a contradiction when pulling back the veil that exists in all our minds – the veil that separates what we think we are from what we really are; from what we want to be and know we can’t be. It’s the same veil that shrouds us from the true knowledge of how to escape the cycle of dissonance that, if ever it was removed, would reveal the truth that makes cowards of most all of us.
The Iceman Cometh continues through June 17th at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map), with performances Thursdays thru Saturdays 7pm, Sundays 1:30pm. Tickets are $61-$175, and are available by phone (312-443-3800) or online here (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at GoodmanTheatre.org. (Running time: 4 hours 45 minutes, three intermission)
All photos by Liz Lauren
Patrick Andrews (Don Parritt), Kate Arrington (Cora), Brian Dennehy (Larry Slade), Marc Grapey (Chuck Morello), James Harms (Jimmy Tomorrow), John Hoogenakker (Willie Oban), Salvatore Inzerillo (Rocky Pioggi), John Judd (Pete Wetjoen), Nathan Lane (Hickey), Loren Lazerine (Moran), Larry Neumann Jr. (Ed Mosher), Stephen Oulmette (Harry Hope), John Reeger (Cecil Lewis), Tara Sissom (Pearl), Lee Stark (Margie), John Douglas Thompson (Joe Mott), Bret Tuomi (Lieb), Lee Wilkof (Hugo Kalmar)
behind the scenes
Robert Falls (director), Kevin Depinet (set design), Natasha Katz (lighting), Neena Arndt (dramaturg), Merrily Murray-Walsh (costumes), Joseph Drummond (production stage manager), Alden Vasquez (stage manager), Claire E. Zawa (stage manager), Adam Belcuore (casting), Liz Lauren (photos)