The Iceman Cometh to Chicago's Goodman Theatre: A Powerful Mounting of O'Neill's American Masterpiece.

The Iceman Cometh to Chicago's Goodman Theatre: A Powerful Mounting of O'Neill's American Masterpiece.
Hugo Kalmar (Lee Wilkof) with Larry Slade (Brian Dennehy) in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh directed by Robert Falls at Goodman Theatre (April 21 – June 17, 2012).
It’s “the No Chance Saloon, Bedrock Bar, the End of the Line Café, the Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller…no one here has to worry about where they’re going next, because there is no  farther they can go”–Playwright Eugene O’Neill.

Chicago, Wednesday, May 9, 2012. Sadness, loneliness and desperation permeate in Robert Falls’ major revival of The Iceman Cometh–Eugene O’Neill’s towering portrait of hope and disillusionment. The Goodman Theatre stage has been transformed into a flophouse in New York’s Bowery for the play.   As the show opens, the men sit at a series of tables in a dark shadowy space wasting away at Harry Hope’s rundown saloon. It is no accident that the show is performed in the shadows–as metaphorically speaking that is where the men exist–in the shadow between life and death. They are shadows of their former selves who have all but given-up living except for their “pipe dreams” fueled by alcohol.

This is the second time that Goodman’s Artist Director, Robert Falls has mounted this challenging production–revisiting the piece more than two decades after he first embarked on it. Falls explains, “It’s no secret that I regard Eugene O’Neill as our greatest American playwright, and none of his plays are as challenging as The Iceman Cometh”.  Fall’s describes O’Neill’s play as “Mammoth in structure and epic in ambition,” saying, “Iceman is both an absorbing theatrical journey and an X-ray of the human condition—replete with all of its ambitions, joys and inexorable terrors.”

Since full-blown productions of The Iceman Cometh are rare, when a production is mounted it attracts attention.  The reason that Iceman is not produced more often is not that it isn’t an exceptional piece of theater but because it is incredibly difficult to mount.

The play, one of O’Neill’s most powerful and haunting, from America’s only Nobel Prize-winning dramatist, is a huge commitment for all involved from the director to the actors and even the audience.  It is an epic work lasting nearly five hours.  At last Thursday’s opening it was rewarding to note that even with today’s sound-bite mentality the audience (who had three chances for escape during three intermissions) stayed the course and was rewarded with a masterful production that looks like a shoe-in for a future Broadway run.

This time around, the role of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, the quintessential purveyor and slayer of pipe dreams is played by award-winning stage and screen star Nathan Lane. In Falls’ 1990 Iceman, Brian Dennehy was Hickey–in the first of seven O’Neill collaboration between Falls and Dennehy.

Over the next two decades at the Goodman, Falls and Dennehy together generated acclaimed productions of O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet (1996); Long Day’s Journey into Night (2002 and on Broadway), Hughie (2004), Desire Under the Elms (2009, as part of the Falls-curated O’Neill festival “A Global Exploration: Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century,” and on Broadway) and the double-bill of Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape (2010).

In the 2012 Iceman, Dennehy has switched roles from the younger Hickey character, to the aging anarchist Larry Slade who remains separate from the others as he basks in his own misery waiting for death, yet afraid.  Lane and Dennehy are joined by an outstanding assortment of motley local and out-of-town actors filling the shadows as former soldiers of fortune, entrepreneurs, political dissidents and social outcasts.

Every detail in this production was carefully orchestrated from Kevin Depinet’s simple and stark set design making it the perfect backdrop for the story to shine to Natasha Katz’s lighting and Merrily Murray-Walsh’s costumes. The large cast was well-chosen from John Judd’s soulful portrayal of “the general” Piet to John Reeger’s sad-sack Cecil–the once-upon a time leader of a Boer Commando. Stephen Ouimette’s performance as Harry Hope, was masterful as he captured the scope of O’Neill’s intent within his character; Larry Neumann Jr.’s as Hope’s brother-in-law and one time circus man was on-spot as was John Douglas Thompson’s Joe Mott. John Hoogenakker’s tragic Willie, the Harvard Law School alumnus, still young, with a chance for a future, gives a heartbreaking performance of his losing battle with his addiction. Don Parritt (Patrick Andrews), Slate’s eighteen-year-old surrogate son–not one of the regulars–arrives from the west coast in hopes to connect with Slate–which turns out to be just another pipe dream.  Lee Wilkof’s Hugo, is a comically tragic character who spends most of the show in total oblivion with his head on the table.

The tarts, Kate Arrington, Lee Stark and Tara Sissom, and the two bartenders, Rocky (Salvatore Inzerillo) and Chuck (Marc Grapey) reside on the edge of the shadows living with their own insecurities and doubts while still trying to function in a more real world.


The Iceman Cometh runs now through June 10; tickets ($61 – $133, subject to change) at 312 443.3800 or visit at the Goodman Theatre website.  In addition, the Goodman offers a four-ticket Luxury Ticket package which includes a contribution to the theater, access to House Seats, parking, use of the Patrons’ Lounge (private bar, restrooms and coat check) with complimentary drinks; mention the Luxury Package when purchasing tickets.

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