THE ICEMAN COMETH, dir. Philip Minor. Trinity Square Repertory Company, Providence, Rhode Island, January 30 - February 29, 1981: A REVIEW. (Accompanying photos by Constance Brown.)
In discussing the 17 major characters in The Iceman Cometh in her recent book, Forging a Language (reviewed in this issue), Jean Chothia notes that "each is etched sharply" but that "even more important than any one individual is how credible ... [O'Neill] makes the community appear." The comment suggests why a successful production of the play requires a group of actors who can convey the individuality of their separate roles and simultaneously subdue their disparate leitmotifs in order to blend into the "symphony" of the ensemble. And, Bejeez, what an acting company Trinity Square's artistic director Adrian Hall has assembled! Their performance of Iceman, under the subtle, delicate guidance of director Philip Minor (who showed patience for the play's monumental length and under-standing of its necessary repetitiveness and occasional turgidity), was flawless. Though this was my first Iceman on stage, I doubt if I will ever see its equal.
The performance was in Trinity Square's upstairs playspace, a steep, one-third-round amphitheatre whose precipitous height focused great (and appropriate) weight on the persons who peopled the cramped spaces of Harry Hope's bar--each individual or twosome isolated at its own island-table, in sets so believable and so true both to period and to O'Neill's instructions that I forgot completely the marvelous contribution of set designer Robert D. Soule. This was Harry Hope's. (How could we doubt it? We'd trod through its sawdust-strewn back room to reach the stairs to our seats; and our disbelief was, under the skilled and knowing guidance of all concerned, completely suspended!)
Not that the production uncovered new truths about, or highlighted new revelations in, O'Neill's play: this was an honest and faithful realization of the script without any obtrusive directorial tamperings. Which was as it should be, since the play is perfect as it is, and the production proved the accuracy of Brooks Atkinson's description of it as "a mighty theatre work." Every participant, every beat and nuance, was ideal, and the totality was ensemble performance at its best. The play's themes--about the relative efficacy of harsh reality and comforting, sustaining illusions; and, to adopt a phrase that Hickey uses in Act Two, about "the right kind of pity"--were abundantly clear without any idiosyncratic italicizing. But the play's ideas have been discussed abundantly elsewhere and need no reiteration here.
The costumes, designed by William
Lane, were as effective and verisimilar as the sets. All were
appropriate to their wearers: ill-sized and drab for the
destitute (e.g., Willie Oban, in a filthy, sweat-stained, once-white
shirt, a knee of his trousers ripped, and toes protruding through the
holes in his aged boots); tawdry and flashy for prostitutes (e.g.,
Cora in Act III, overdressed and
As I mentioned, the ensemble work was superb. Mr. Minor's direction deftly traced the changes in atmospheric pressure through the course of the play--from the corpse-like inertia of the opening tableau; through the tensions and eruptions of violence introduced by Parritt's aggressive insinuations, Hickey's unnerving ministrations, and the abrasive clashes between inmates snidely wise about the delusions of others but viciously defensive of their own; to the curious calm of the choral cacophony at the end.
And the individual performances were perfect too. Space doesn't permit mention of them all, and I hope that the accompanying photographs will obviate verbal descriptions. But I must single out a few of Trinity Square's master craftsmen for particular commendation: Richard Kavanaugh's Jimmy Tomorrow, so precise in his speech, so pallid of face, a corpse in a bowler; Daniel Von Bargen's Willie Oban, so rousing in his song (to the extent that he can remember it), and so pathetic in his literal crawling away from Larry in total terror when threatened with isolation upstairs; David C. Jones's Harry Hope, so warm in his affection for his charges, and yet so mean in his Act-Two birthday speech and so comic-pathetic in his repeated attempts to put off the march through the swinging doors and into the terrifying world out-side; Barbara Orson's Cora, a real "star turn" of grand, guttural gaudiness; George Martin's Larry Slade, a gleaming, smiling bundle of cynical self-confidence at the start, as he rolls a cigarette and pontificates knowingly about everyone's self-deceptions except his own. Both the gleam of eye and the smile are gone in the second act, under the combined assaults of Hickey and Parritt; and though the smile returns at the end of the last act, it's a much sadder one, as he sits at the bar, away from the raucous choristers, and admits to being "the only real convert to death Hickey made here."
It is hard to forget Jason Robards' riveting performance as Hickey, though I saw only a filmed version of it on public television years ago. (It is also hard to forget, try as one might, Lee Marvin's desecration of the role in an otherwise fine film version of more recent years.) But Richard Jenkins made the part his own, creating a character both believable and increasingly frightening. In straw hat, striped shirt, bow tie and (appropriately) black suit, he barreled into saloon and play with a big smile, a glad hand for all, and an erratic, frantic animation that grew increasingly wild as the play progressed, giving the physical lie to the verbal gospel of peace and contentment. Seldom, except at moments of wariness, did he reveal the malaise beneath the brash, assured veneer until the great speech in the last act, when the only flaw was the whiff of choreography in his prestissimo dashes around and between the tables as he spoke. Except for that, he made it clear why he'd clung so desperately to the success of the therapy he'd pressured his erstwhile drinking buddies into attempting. Driven finally to the truth, he provided a vocally and physically stunning climax for a production that was on the boards far too briefly and deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.
Trinity Square will receive a special citation for excellence at this year's Tony Awards ceremonies. Their production of The Iceman Cometh showed why.
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