Playwright: Hugh Leonard. At: Northlight Theatre,9501 Skokie, Skokie. Phone: 847-673-6300; www.northlight.org; $35-$50. Runs through: May 2
Desmond Drummas in "humdrum"has worked "12,000 days at a job I detest." After 40 years he soon will retire as the strictest boss in Dublin's civil service. Desmond Drummthink "tight as a drum"has spent a joyless life taking malicious pleasure in denying joy to others. Self-righteous and waspish, Drumm is a virtuous model of discipline and severity others lack, yet he's half-puzzled that his self-denial has brought him neither admiration nor true respect. Rejecting any Dionysian impulse, Drumm has embraced Apollonian intellectual principles without understanding their higher spirituality. Soon to retire and soon to die of cancer as well, this is Drumm's storyor pieces of ittold from the "now" of 1977 and the "then" of 1937 in a working class Dublin suburb.
Why see a play about such an unpleasant, unfulfilled man? Well, for starters you'll feel a lot better about yourself by comparison! Then, as written by skillful Irish author Hugh Leonard, there are just enough hints of the better man trapped within Drumm to gain our grudging sympathy. It's easy to detest his casual cruelties; it takes a bit more time to recognize his yearnings and accept them as our own.
However, the chief reason to see A Life is for the fine ensemble acting in this Northlight production, directed by B.J. Jones. The cast of younger and older veterans is extraordinary in depth and range, albeit it comes natural to John Mahoney and Bradley Armacost to play Irish. As older Drumm, Mahoney is all starchy malice and grimacing ruefulness, a man who gave up his dreams decades ago. Tall and rail-erect in his buttoned-up three-piece suit, Mahoney's Drumm drinks but never is drunk, and finds neither pleasure nor escape in a drop taken. Armacost is the slacker friend who years before stole Drumm's girl by offering her a generous heart instead of a lesson plan. As their younger selves, in 1937, Matt Schwader and Robert Belushi are pitch-perfect not only vis-à-vis each other, but also as youthful mirrors of Mahoney and Armacost; a combination of sharp writing, directing and observant acting.
The women in their lives, 1977, are played by still-doe-eyed Linda Kimbrough and versatile Penny Slusher, who disappear into their roles, with Kimbrough as the feistier of the two. Their younger selves are played by Melanie Keller and Joanne Dubach, also in perfect sync as the playful young women who remain life-long best friends.
The hair stylings and Rachel Laritz's period-perfect costumes carefully define each character, young and old. Jack Magaw's handsome broad unit set features three overlapping octagonsdelineated by cleverly-used floor texturesagainst a vast, gray seascape. Illuminated by JR ( sic ) Lederle's often-subtle lighting, they provide a firm anchor for Desmond Drumm's anchored life.