- About the Play
- Behind the Scenes
- Photo Gallery
By Hugh Leonard
MARCH 18, 2010 - MAY 2, 2010
“HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Razor-sharp... a richly affecting production” – Chicago Sun-Times
John Mahoney stars in this evocative play about the evolution of friendships in a small Irish town. As Desmond Drumm nears retirement, his memories come to life, reminding him of the triumphs and tragedies of his youth and prompting him to mend relationships with a childhood friend and the love interest that had charmed them both. But as scenes from the past shed light on the misunderstandings of today, Desmond must realize that his lifelong ability to use his great intellect and acerbic wit as a means of self-defense has come at a cost.
Playwright Hugh Leonard was also a novelist, newspaper and magazine columnist, and scriptwriter for TV and film who won numerous awards for his works. Perhaps his best known works are his memoirs, Home Before Night and Out After Dark and his play Da.
Scroll down for:
- An Interview with director BJ Jones and actor John Mahoney
- "Hugh Leonard's Dalkey" - an account of the town in which he was raised, and the setting for A Life.
- "Why I Write" - personal reflections on Leonard's methods and motivations as a writer
Interview with A Life director BJ Jones and actor John Mahoney
with Northlight resident dramaturg Meghan Beals McCarthy
March 3, 2010
MM: So, how are rehearsals going?
BJ: Very smoothly. We're in the first week and we're pretty much blocked. Which means we know where we're walking, we know where things want to be, where people come and go and so forth. So the blueprint is laid out.
JM: For me, as one of the actors, it's going great; I think BJ cast superbly. I think they're really into what they're doing and very, very knowledgeable about the play.
MM: The play is set in 1937 and '77 and we've got two sets of actors playing the groups of friends. How has that impacted your rehearsal in terms of process, or how you talk about the play or how you talk about characters?
JM: It's interesting. Matt [Schwader] and I, who plays the younger Drumm, we've sort of been watching each other and looking for little idiosyncrasies, gestures, ways to laugh, ways to do something, so you can see the process of this man to old age, and it flows sort of seamlessly as being sort of the same person. It's really easy to pick up on. You really don't even have to be told what to do. And I find that very interesting. Also just talking about character, getting a younger perspective on it, and how that goes along with the older perspective of it. It's been great.
BJ: John asked perhaps the most compelling question the first day and that is "Why do these people care about Drumm?" We've been going through the play stubbornly, both by watching as the younger Drumm goes through his journey in the opening incidents of his life, and through John's older Drumm going through the one day in his life where he discovers and refreshes much of his past - and I think we're discovering those things that people are attracted to with Drumm. The fact that he had a tragic family life, and for me, the fact that when most people find out that they are facing the end, they may collapse in on themselves. Whereas Drumm is quite brave and decides to face all the truths in his life, which activates and impassions this particular day. To go to all the darkest, most troubled places in his life is quite brave, isn't it? Continue>
Hugh Leonard's Dalkey
Hugh Leonard was raised in Dalkey, Ireland - the same town in which A Life is set.
Originally published in the New York Times: Dec 20, 1981. pg. A.9
by Hugh Leonard
Soon after I had ended a 10-year exile and returned to my native Dalkey, I wrote a television play called ''The Virgins'' - an account of the exploits of three male celibates of this parish. In our town a secret is a crime against nature, and a few days before the transmission date one of the three lifted his face from the surface of a pint of Guinness and said to the barman, ''I hear tell that Leonard has put the lads and me into a play on the goggle-box.''
The barman, who already knew but has the cunning of a papal nuncio, merely looked astonished and said, ''Do you tell me?'' ''True as God, next Sunday they're showing it.'' The man submerged his nose in the pint like a fish that has been too long out of water. When next heard his voice was wistful. ''A pity we'll miss it. Sunday's our night for a jar in Finnegan's.''
He never did see the play. Being a real Dalkeyman - as distinct from a first-generation parvenu or runner-in - he will effortlessly set the world to rights, but is hanged if he will be at its beck and call. Discommoding yourself, he will tell you, is the kind of senseless jack-acting that gave Dinnie McCarthy the bad ticker, and, in any case, watching yourself on television might be classified in the town as a form of affectation.
There is an elderly woman who, whenever she sees me in the town, regards me with such venom that I cross the street. Last week, as I was collecting the newspapers, there was a growling noise at my elbow. She was muttering: ''Look at him, standing there with the cigar stuck in his gob. I know the kick up the behind his mother would give him.'' I am, by the way, 55.
The point of both anecdotes is that Dalkey seems to exist out of ordinary time: a kind of Irish Brigadoon without the mists, the feyness or the tendency to disappear. Continue>
Why I Write
by Hugh Leonard
Because I am vain and a show-off. Because I have an urge to be known. Because I have a creative urge and a flair that goes with it. Because I am good for nothing else. Because it is a way of being one's own master. Because writing is an illness, a virus that no science can isolate and cure. Probably the last of these is the true reason, but there is no certainty. One might as well ask why one lives. How I work is another matter.
There are as many ways of writing as there are writers. For me, a play is cause and effect. I start with people and a concept. In my play Summer, I began with the idea of two picnics six years apart. I wanted to see what time had done to my people. At the beginning, a metaphor was in the back of my head, and it was that at a certain point in our lives we move from a bus to a tramcar which travels along an ordained route, unable to change its course. We, the passengers move around inside it, giving ourselves the delusion of freedom of choice and destination.
That was more than enough to begin with: eight characters, six middle-aged and two teenagers (at least to begin with), and, as a setting, an unspoiled hillside in the first act, and the suggestion of an impinging building development in the second. And I had a couple of rules, or rather one rule and an acid test. The German dramaturgist Lessing said that in a good play every character is in the right. So much for the rule, and it is unyielding; there are no villians. Continue>
John Mahoney last appeared at Northlight in Better Late. He has starred in the Broadway revival of Prelude to a Kiss, Romance at the Almeida Theatre in London and I Never Sang for My Father at Steppenwolf. He has appeared in over 30 Steppenwolf productions where he is a member of the ensemble. He received a Tony Award for his performance in The House of Blue Leaves. Films include She's the One, Moonstruck, Tin Men, Primal Fear, Say Anything and Barton Fink. On TV, John starred in Dinner at Eight, The Water Engine, and the 5-time Emmy Award-winning series Frasier, for which he received multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his portrayal of patriarch Martin Crane. John is the most recent recipient of the prestigious Sarah Siddons Award, only the second male (after Brian Dennehy) to be so honored.
Matt Schwader Chicago Credits: John in A Life in the Theatre, A Christmas Carol (Goodman Theatre);Titus Andronicus (Court Theatre); Othello, Henry IV parts 1 & 2, Measure for Measure, Merry Wives of Windsor, The Moliere Comedies (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre); Juliet in Shakespeare's R&J (co-production Apple Tree Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare); All Night Strut (Marriott Theatre); Mrs. Warren's Profession (Remy Bumppo Theatre); Polish Joke (Noble Fool Theatricals). He has also performed with Actors Theatre of Louisville, Indiana Repertory, and Summer Shakespeare Notre Dame. Matt is a company member with American Players Theatre in Spring Green, WI where he played Prince Hal in Henry IV and the title role in Henry V and will be appearing in As You Like It, All's Well that Ends Well, and Major Barbara this coming season. He holds an MFA from the University of Delaware's Professional Theatre Training Program.
|Penny Slusher is delighted to be making her debut with Northlight. Most recently she was seen as Margaret in Old Glory at Writers' Theatre. Other appearances include: Lavinia Hubbard in Another Part Of The Forest, Grace in Bus Stop, and Nettie in The Subject Was Roses (also Writers' Theatre), Marina (Nanny) in Uncle Vanya, Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest and Mrs. Malins in James Joyce's The Dead (Court Theatre). She has appeared as Simona in Serendipity Theatre's The Outfit, Rosemary in Picnic, Aunt Hannah in All The Way Home (Griffin Theatre) and Mrs. Grogan in The Cider House Rules (Famous Door Theatre). Penny has also worked with Steppenwolf and Apple Tree Theatres. Her film credits include What's Wrong With Virginia, Meet The Browns, Grace Is Gone, and Death Of A President. She is the recipient of a Jeff Award and two After Dark Awards.
|Joanne Dubach has been acting in Chicago for almost two years. She most recently played Ahab in Moby Dick...Rehearsed with The State Theatre of Chicago. She has also worked with Theatre-Hikes and Pasta Fazool Players. Regional theatre credits include The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Little Dog Laughed with The Phoenix Theatre. She is very happy to be performing at Northlight for the first time in A Life.
|Linda Kimbrough last appeared at Northlight in Better Late, opposite John Mahoney & Mike Nussbaum. Previous Northlight appearances include She Stoops to Conquer, Red Herring, The Gamester, Hearts and The Old Neighborhood. Recent regional credits include The History Boys at the P.I.C.T. Theatre in Pittsburgh, Noises Off at The Cleveland Play House, and Pride & Prejudice, also at P.I.C.T. Some favorite roles include the title role in Miss Witherspoon (Next), Amelia Pickles in The Uneasy Chair (Writers'), The Woman in The Play About the Baby (Goodman), Nurse Preen (opposite John Mahoney) in The Man Who Came to Dinner (Steppenwolf and The Barbican Theatre in London), Mme. Sganarelle (opposite Brian Bedford) in The Moliere Comedies (Shubert/Chicago Shakespeare Theatre) and The Countess in All's Well That Ends Well (Chicago Shakespeare). She has volunteered for 25 years at CRIS radio, reading the newspaper to the sight-impaired and neurologically handicapped.
Melanie Keller is pleased to be making her Northlight debut. She was the 2007-08 Chicago Fellow at the Stratford Festival of Canada, where she appeared in Caesar and Cleopatra, Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet. She is an artistic associate of First Folio where she has appeared in Jeeves in Bloom, Design for Living, Private Lives, Angel Street, and The Importance of Being Earnest. She is also a member of Signal Ensemble Theatre and has appeared in their productions of The Weir (Jeff Nomination-Best Supporting Actress), She Stoops to Conquer, Landslide and Much Ado about Nothing. Other credits include Hamlet and King John (Chicago Shakespeare), Marathon '33 (Strawdog), The Long Christmas Ride Home (Next), A Christmas Carol and To Kill A Mockingbird (Metropolis), and The Misanthrope (BackStage). Melanie trained at the Birmingham Conservatory of Stratford and at RADA in London, and is a graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University.
Bradley Armacost (Kearns) Chicago credits include The Seafarer, Maria Arndt, Playboy of the Western World and Faith Healer (Steppenwolf); The Trip to Bountiful, Oedipus Complex, Zoo Story, A Christmas Carol and A Touch of the Poet (Goodman); Cymbeline, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Antony and Cleopatra, Comedy of Errors, The Merchant of Venice and Timon of Athens (Chicago Shakespeare). He is an Artistic Associate with Provision Theatre. He was the narrator for The Rite of Spring and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (Chicago Symphony Orchestra). Television and film credits include Untouchables, Early Edition, Missing Persons, Angel Street, Repetition, The Company, Eight Men Out, Backwoods and Barbershop II.
Rob Belushi (Lar) is pleased to have the opportunity to appear at Northlight in the cast of A Life. Credits include: Of Mice and Men (Steppenwolf); The Lion in Winter (Writers); girl, 20 (Serendipity Theater Collective); Summer People (The Gift); Sketchbook '06 (Collaboraction) and This is Our Youth (Pine Box Theater). Rob has performed sketch and improv comedy at The Second City (resident stage Las Vegas, understudy for the Chicago Main Stage and the National Touring Company), as well as The IO, the Annoyance, Atlanta Improv Festival, Chicago Improv Festival, and the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival. Film and television credits include Valentine's Day (New Line Cinema), Sorority Row (Karz Entertainment), The Christians (Splitpillow), Riff Raff (Best Supporting Actor, Tenerife Film Festival) and According to Jim (ABC). Rob received an Honors BA in Film Studies from Wesleyan University (Middletown, CT) and is a graduate of the School at Steppenwolf. He is a member of the Actors Equity Association.
BJ Jones (Director)
Jack Magaw (Set Design)
Rachel Laritz (Costume Design)
JR Lederle (Lighting Design)
Lindsay Jones (Sound Design)
Laura D. Glenn (Production Stage Manager)
In this evocative play about the evolution of friendships, Desomond Drumm confronts his past, coming to terms with long-buried memories of his youth and the love triangle that soured a great friendship.
Photo GalleryClick on any image to start the slideshow
In this evocative play about the evolution of friendships, Desmond Drumm confronts his past, coming to terms with long-buried memories of his youth and the love triangle that soured a great friendship.
A Life (Scene 1)
Remarkable cast brings Northlight play to 'Life':
Same characters 40 years apart perfectly portrayed
March 31, 2010
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Critic
Casting is invariably crucial to any play's success. But in Hugh Leonard's "A Life," now receiving a richly affecting production at Northlight Theatre, it is truly a make-or-break element.
In fact, pretty much everything in this beautifully observed drama depends on an audience being able to fully believe that the four adults in late middle-age who are living out their modest lives in the little Irish town of Dalkey in 1977, are the very same people who, 40 years earlier, quite rashly but aptly forged their futures.
So kudos to director BJ Jones, who seems to have done something akin to "genetically engineered casting," and found actors whose physical resemblances over four decades suggest time-lapse photography. That Jones' cast (with their thick-as-clotted cream Irish accents) also happens to turn in splendid performances is even better.
At the center of Leonard's play is Desmond Drumm (John Mahoney). A rather dry and bitter career civil servant, he is on the brink of retirement and has a rather strong whiff of his mortality.
Always as fiercely judgmental of himself as he is of others, he is keenly aware of the smallness of his existence. And though he has long prided himself in his adherence to principles and standards, he has begun to sense the emptiness of it all. Now, with his much-tormented but invaluable wife Dolly (Penny Slusher) at his side, he feels a compelling need to mend some fences with the ever-feisty Mary (Linda Kimbrough), and her big-hearted, if feckless, husband Kearns (Brad Armacost), and to come to some reckoning.
Forty years earlier, Drumm (Matt Schwader is his twentysomething incarnation) was a priggish fellow who lost his high-spirited, anti-intellectual love (Melanie Keller as the young Mary) to a warmer, more flexible fellow (Robert Belushi, the young Kearns). The young Dolly (Joanne Dubach), ever a model of forbearance, stepped in to fill the void. As it happens, each of the four ended up with the ideal mate, though not without some heartbreak.
As the older characters at once inhabit their current lives and glimpse their younger selves, the play exerts a surprising emotional pull. Mahoney, whippet-thin and razor-sharp, nails Drumm. And in their very different but telling ways, Kimbrough and Slusher winningly suggest they've got him nailed (as do the very effective Keller and Dubach, years earlier). Armacost is ideal as the man capable of savoring life, even if he is sadly estranged from his son. And designer Jack Magaw's gazebo-by-the-sea set makes you feel the chill of the Irish air.
Read the review on Chicago Sun-Times.com>
Review: A Life
March 29, 2010
BY Brian Hieggelke
Sure, it's no surprise to encounter yet another Irish writer with a statistically unlikely mastery of this language. And it's certainly no surprise to find John Mahoney playing an Irishman nearing life's end with an unnaturally natural composure. Nor, for that matter, is it any kind of a revelation to tell you that director BJ Jones is consistent in his ability to assemble top-flight ensembles that he molds into a collective of outstanding quality. Unsurprising all, yes, but not to be taken for granted, especially after far too many nights at the theater that point out how exceptional this all is.
"A Life," Irish playwright Hugh Leonard's sequel to his Tony Award-winning play, "Da," unfolds in a single day in the small town of Dalkey, Ireland, when Desmond Drumm (Mahoney) re-engages with important lifelong friends after a disconcerting visit to the doctor. As this happens, a parallel series of flashbacks feature the same characters nearer life's beginning, laying the foundation for the interlocking relationships. This is no gothic tragedy; revelations are meaningful and heartbreaking, but for the reasons most of us suffer remorse. Not over great betrayals or horrifying transgressions, but rather over smaller but persistent manifestations of obstinancy of character, of insensitivity to the world right around us.
The parallel story structure could have made for some problems, but here it is quite effective in conveying the nuances of maturity, thanks to the quality of the casting. While people might never change, it says, they do evolve, as youthful brio and confidence inevitably give way to a more melancholy resignation. And so while the young Desmond marches confidently to the sound of his own convictions (played with convincing rigidity by Matt Schwader), his older self retains his righteous prickliness if not his self-confidence. He pleads for an accounting of the meaning of his life, "to demand an audit, to know what he amounts to," but it's not clear he really wants to hear an answer. Robert Belushi plays young Lar with a manic euphoria that impossibly suggests this part could have been written for someone with his surname. His mature counterpart, the veteran Bradley Armacost, retains his youthful infectious joy even after an alcohol-fueled life on the dole, but now an aura of sorrow haunts him. The women in both eras are a bit less vividly rendered, most likely a manifestation of the text rather than a fault in the performances, but the great tragedy of the play, for me, was the unconditional love for Desmond that his wife, Dolly (played young by Joanne Dubach and old by Penny Slusher in a perfect harmony of character), never stops exhibiting, even in the face of his disinterest. He may be sick, but what he does to her killed me.
Read the review on Newcity.com>
'A Life' worth examining
"Cogito ergo sum," intones the dying Desmond Drumm as he bitterly reflects on his life, "I am a cog, therefore I am." The life's accounting at the core of "A Life" comes as Drumm -- a government bureaucrat who spent "300 days a year, for 30 years at a job I hate" -- attempts to reconcile his time on earth as he faces the end of it.
The irony in Hugh Leonard's slow-building drama is harsh: "I need to know what I amount to," Drumm (John Mahoney) pleads in a rare, outward flash of raw, desperate neediness. But as he continues -- "I seem to have access to everyone's file but my own" -- it is with the hardened, caustic edge of a man who has been so angry for so long he's almost extinguished all other emotions.
Set in the tiny hamlet of Dalkey, Ireland in 1937 and 1977, "A Life" begins with Drumm as a cipher as intelligent as he is hostile. He seems utterly mismatched with his chatty, endlessly cheerful and less-than whipsmart wife Dolly (the invaluable Penny Slusher). For reasons unclear, he has shunned his only friends for the better part of a decade, and is attempting to reconnect solely because (this is no spoiler as it is revealed in the first scene) he has six months to live.
The questions at the deceptively cold heart of "A Life" revolves around what causes a life to add up to such joyless emptiness. Drumm has replaced his friends with standards, existing in the cold cave of his intellect instead of living within the warm arms of family and friends. It's an understated tour de force for Mahoney, the Oak Parker famous for his years on "Frasier" -- a thoroughly entertaining sitcom didn't begin to hint at the depths he can mine.
Despite the explosive reveal in the penultimate scene of "A Life," director BJ Jones doesn't exploit the emotional heft of Leonard's story, wisely keeping the work as controlled as its anti-hero's words even as the emotional stakes grow ever higher and Drumm faces demons for decades buried. Forcing long-unspoken truths into the open is Mary (Linda Kimbrough), whose relationship with Drumm is murky at first but takes on a crystalline, riveting clarity as the second act moves towards its climax. This is Kimbrough's play as much as Mahoney's, and she turns in a performance of fierce intensity. When Mary glares at Drumm across her living room, it's with the fearsome, uncompromising focus of a laser. Let Drumm hurl his sharpest invectives. Mary is a woman of equally fearsome ammunitions, and she is not afraid to use them -- no matter who gets wounded.
This is definitely Mahoney and Kimbrough's show, but the ensemble is powerful throughout. Bradley Armacost finds the unspoken sadness in Kearns, a jovially hapless drunk obliviously spending his life in the service of the 11th commandment ("Thou Shalt Not Make Others Look Inferior").
As the Young Desmond Drumm, Matt Schwader is tangled roil of frustration, ambition, and -- following one fateful night -- soul-crushing dashed hopes of both the heart and the mind. Then there's Melanie Keller as young Mary.
"It's only a chair," she says of a Van Gough print Desmond has presented her with, "A bit of wood." And then: "But it's like he got all of himself inside of it." In one line, we see the depths of insight Mary is capable of, and realize that she could be the woman to engage Drumm's demanding mind and ease his restless heart.
That of course, doesn't happen. But why it doesn't, and the far-reaching consequences of pride and anger wielded as a lifetime's defense against hurt, make this "Life" compelling.
Read the review on PioneerLocal.com>
Review: A Life
Copley News Service
March 29, 2010
By Dan Zeff
The cantankerous Desmond Drumm was a supporting character in Hugh Leonard¹s popular 1978 Irish play Da. Two years after Da opened on Broadway, Leonard moved Drumm to center stage in A Life, a beautifully written play enhanced by a superbly acted revival at the Northlight Theatre.
Drumm (John Mahoney) has about six months to live, according to the town doctor. The man decides he needs to look back on his life, taking "an audit" to see what his existence has amounted to. Drumm doesn't like what he finds. He's spent 40 years in a civil service job he despises, supervising colleagues he finds contemptible in their laziness and backbiting. His personal life offers no more pleasurable vistas. As a young man Drumm lost the women he loved to his best friend Lar, an amiable layabout, and Drumm settled for Dolly, a timid and compliant woman he looks down on as his inferior.
Drumm is a bully and an intimidator. He's more educated, more intelligent, and more articulate than most of the people around him and he funnels his advantages into a scornful and cynical attitude that costs him friendships at work and in his domestic life. The man doesn't suffer fools gladly and nearly everyone he encounters personally and professionally seems to be a fool.
Near the end of the play Drumm pronounces his credo. "I've never lied to or about a man. I've never smiled into the face of a knave, or pretended to see virtue where I found none. Or been a loafer or a hanger-on, or a licker of boots." Maybe so, but just a few minutes later Drumm recognizes the real truth of his life beneath the arrogant facade. "Instead of friends, I've had standards, and woe betide those who failed to come up to them. Well, I failed. My contempt for the town was cowardice. What I called principles was vanity. What I called friendship was malice." Quite a shock of recognition.
Leonard tells his story in a "then and now" manner. Drumm, Dolly, Lar, and Lar's wife Mary appear in the present time (1977) and their younger selves take the stage as they were in 1937. The audience recognizes in younger characters the seeds of their elders 40 years later. Young Drumm in particular was growing into the stiff necked, humorless man who would tyrannize over those around him for 40 years.
A Life sounds grim and unrelenting, but this is an Irish play, which means there is humor and warmth, and the lilting Irish brogue often elevates ordinary dialogue into a kind of prose poetry. The shifting of the storyline between 1937 and 1977 enriches the narrative without coming across as confusing or artificial (Leonard used a similar device in Da).
The performances under B. J. Jones's insightful and understated direction suit every character beautifully. Mahoney is a natural as Drumm, verbally cruel to those who can't defend themselves. Mahoney doesn¹t milk the curmudgeonly Drumm for easy laughs and his change of heart at the end isn¹t overdone. Drumm is still Drumm, sharp tongued and overbearing, but a glint of humanity finally makes its way through the hard crust of the man's insufferable superiority.
Brad Armacost is wonderful as the older Lar, feckless but likeable (an Irish play in Chicagoland theater without Armacost would be unthinkable). Linda Kimbrough is excellent, as usual, this time as Mary, the woman Drumm should have married. Penny Slusher is an affecting Dolly, who meekly adores Drumm in spite of decades of verbal abuse.
The young versions of the four characters are masterstrokes of casting. They even eerily resemble the oldsters physically. Melanie Keller is first among equals as Mibs (the young Mary) but only because she has the best scenes. It¹s a wonderful portrayal of a plucky, independent young woman who may have been too much for Drumm to handle in marriage. He¹ll never know.
Matt Schwader perfectly reflects the boy who is father to the man as the young Desmond. The character's "before and after" transformation may remind the spectator of how the young Ebenezer Scrooge turned into the elderly miser in A Christmas Carol. Robert Belushi is just right as the happy go lucky young Lar, the butt of Drumm's ridicule for years but too innocent and agreeable to bear a grudge.
The action takes place within Jack Magaw's set, a gazebo for the outdoor scenes and arrangements of furniture for the indoor scenes. Rachel Laritz designed the costumes, JR Lederle the lighting, and Lindsay Jones the sound.
A Life may seem wordy and low keyed compared to modern and more violent Irish plays by Martin McDonagh and his generation. There isn't much physical action in A Life and occasionally the Irish accents present a problem. But the play is rich in its character revelations and the confrontation scenes, especially in the second act, crackle with drama. This is a fine adult play in the best sense of that much abused term.
Northlight stages work from Ireland's finest
March 18, 2010
By DONALD LIEBENSON Contributor
With an all-Chicago ensemble that includes local treasures John Mahoney and Linda Kimbrough, Northlight Theatre's next production, "A Life," promises to be a wonderful one.
Written by the late Hugh Leonard and directed by Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones, "A Life" shifts back and forth between present and past. Mahoney stars as Desmond Drumm, an Irish civil servant reaching retirement and reflecting on the triumphs and tragedies of his youth; a former childhood friend and the woman they both loved.
Leonard, who passed away last year, was regarded as Ireland's greatest living playwright. The autobiographical "A Life" is a companion play to his best-known work, "Da," which featured Drumm as a supporting character.
Just as relationships are at the heart of "A Life," so, too, are artistic collaborations at the core of this production. Northlight and Leonard go way back. Leonard's "The Au Pair Man" was produced in Northlight's inaugural season in 1974.
Jones and Mahoney have worked on several plays together, most recently the world premiere of "Better Late" in 2008. "I was looking for something John would be excited about," Jones said. "We glanced at 'Da,' and then he said that there was another play he liked much better, 'A Life.'
"I've had 'A Life' in my back pocket for quite some time. I saw one of the first productions when it was produced in America and was very moved by it. The ability of this character to take an unvarnished look at his life is very brave. I think everyone wishes they could do their own inventory fearlessly and then be at peace with it."
Mahoney is one of Chicago's favorite sons and a popular draw for his work on stage and screen. But the consummate character actor has always been about ensemble. When Jones was inartfully asked about what a privilege it is to work with Mahoney, he responded, "If I were to say that, John would say, 'Wait a minute, what about these other actors?' And that's the way I feel. It is a privilege to work with (this ensemble)."
Kimbrough last appeared at Northlight with Mahoney in "Better Late" and Jones estimates he has worked with her on a dozen plays. Bradley Armacost is another Northlight veteran (he met his wife when they both appeared in "Benefactors" in 1987). "Almost any play benefits from having a longtime personal relationship between actors or an actor and a director," Jones said.
The cast also includes actors at the beginnings of their careers but whose resumes already include estimable credits. Rob Belushi (Jim's son) has appeared at Steppenwolf. Penny Slusher, Joanne Dubach, Melanie Keller, and Matt Schwader are also making their Northlight debuts.
"The cool thing about this play," Jones noted, "is that the actors are playing (younger and older versions of their characters). When they're not onstage, they're watching each other for physical characteristics and vocal intonations. John is watching Matt, who plays Desmond 40 years younger."
"A Life" is steeped in authentic Irish culture. "There's the Ireland of John Ford's 'The Quiet Man," Jones joked, "and the real Ireland." To prepare for "A Life," Jones and company have immersed themselves in the Irish "milieu."
"We all read 'Da' and Hugh Leonard's autobiographies, Home Before Dark and Out After Dark," Jones said. "We have a dialect coach who comes in, and everybody is watching several films to help with accents. We're all looking at 'The Snapper.' I was just watching 'Michael Collins.' Brad took us all to the Irish Heritage Center, where he's practically the mayor.
"I'm 100-percent Irish. This world is incredibly familiar to me. I understand the nuances, the Irish sense of humor, the dry wit, resentment, anger, and frustration. I haven't cast anyone who hasn't done other Irish plays."
But while the play is set in Ireland, Jones called it universal. "Hugh Leonard once said that he is an Irish playwright, but that he doesn't write plays about Ireland, he writes plays about people. 'A Life' is simple, so sublime, and a wonderful character study. I'm luxuriating in it."
Read the story on PioneerLocal.com>