First-time director Michael Avolio has done something extraordinary. How’s that, you ask?
Not only did he have the chutzpah to stage Eugene O’Neill’s rarely-produced, large-ensemble grand requiem to “hopeless hope,” The Iceman Cometh as his debut, but the production at Bethesda’s Quotidian Theatre is a smashing success, capturing the essential horror, joy, humor and naked truth of O’Neill’s late-period masterpiece.
During the course of viewing Iceman, the audience is treated to two unforgettable days and nights at Harry Hope’s 1912 dead-end saloon and rooming house. For company, a motley collection of grim fools, ashen in clarity’s harsh glare and deathly afraid of the cutting sting of self-realization, they hide away, trade barbs, share laughs, spin tales and generally commiserate in purple bathos and rotgut booze.
The denizens of Hope’s “No Chance Saloon” are a collection of irreconcilable failures and sour down-and-outers, prostitutes and pimps, sunken ex-revolutionists and disgraced former soldiers.
But Quotidian’s Iceman is not a feast of woe. Its raw power is brutal and shocking, but it’s also deeply funny and transcendently poignant.
Remarkably, each performer completes the ensemble’s garrulous whole, while at the same time exposes finely-etched individual portraits, imbuing a magnanimous stoicism to the stool bums’ personal tragedies.
The great satisfaction of viewing Quotidian’s production lies in the sheer scale of detail and characterization of these wonderful performances and soaking in O’Neill’s soaring, smash-mouth script.
Avolio deserves great credit for the rich, detailed direction of a fantastic, no holds-barred ensemble. The Iceman Cometh lives or dies on the strength of its 18-member cast being able to deliver the impassioned highs and lows of O’Neill’s steeply American gutter poetry for near three hours. Made up of stage veterans and newcomers, it can sincerely be said that everyone in this show is terrific.
Quotidian heavyweights Steve LaRocque and Steve Beall assume the elemental roles of the play, respectively as Hickey the hail-fellow salesman suddenly hocking salvation, and Larry Slade, the “fool-osipher” nihilist, playing devil’s advocate to Hickey’s evangelism.
The play is essentially an intellectual match between these two men, with Larry standing for illusion’s necessity, while Hickey argues that the men have forgotten the restorative balance beyond the fog. And thankfully, O’Neill provides no clear answers. The playwright masterfully leads you down one path before looping back again.
O’Neill’s devastating expression of the human condition in Iceman is many things: a warning about narcotizing one’s pain; his own disillusionment with political activism; a devastatingly forthright view of the human animal animated by malice, rivalry and spite that festers just beneath the placidity of social conditioning; anything but a cheap morality play.
In the end, these lines between Parritt the tightwad and Rocky the bartender sum it up: “An old no-good drunken tramp, as dumb as he is, ought to take a hop off the fire escape! Sure. Why don’t he? Or you? Or me? What de hell’s de difference? Who cares?”
The traveling good-time salesman Hickey is the Mistah Kurtz of Iceman, dominating the empty spaces as the other characters revolve, first around his anticipated arrival, and then around his vital sustenance, hanging onto his every word, seeking license to hang onto their stubborn crutches. Details about his strange transformation are slowly revealed over the final two-thirds of the play.
Playing the central character requires a charismatic congeniality and a demonic power to influence at the same time. It’s a mammoth challenge, and LaRocque nearly met it on review night. He’s very good in a part that allows the rest of the cast to shine, however showed signs of strain at times that I believe will get better with repeated performances. It doesn’t help that O’Neill left a stagy, protracted monologue confession for the actor to dig himself out of in the final act.
Beall spends the majority of the play hunkered down at the edge of the action, implacably above it all, as the dimmer bulbs rattle each other’s chains in a din of ignorance. Sardonically staring ahead or down at his newspaper, Beall’s Larry occasionally cracks, lashing out in fury at the desperate mewling of Don Parritt (Chris Stinson), who seeks ultimate absolution from Larry and at Hickey’s lacerating jousts of truth. By turns arrogant, gloomy and explosive, Beall’s compelling agony is a play unto itself.
The Iceman Cometh
Closes November 24, 2013
Quotidian Theatre Company
at The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh Street
3 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $30
Fridays thru Sundays
Quotidian’s austere staging effectively creates the cave-like hiding place the No Chancers crave. Avolio’s closed-off set evokes a No Exit-like waiting room, hellish in its ruddy comfort and lack of egress. Don Slater’s painterly lighting design fittingly sculpts compositions reminiscent of the Ashcan School or Hopper’s alienated loners.
The bottom line: You’ll love these misfits. They’ll stay with you as you leave the theater and for some time afterward. You’ll love this play. Avolio’s and Quotidian’s phenomenal achievement in enlivening O’Neill’s vivid portrayal of our predilection for self-delusion is a must-see theater experience.
The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Michael Avolio. Featuring Steve LaRocque, Steve Beall, Matt Boliek, Frank Britton, Danny Brooks, John Decker, Tiffany Garfinkle, Genevieve James, Carolyn Kashner, Ken Lechter, Brian McDermott, Brandon Mitchell, Louis Pangaro, Manolo Santalla, Ted Schneider, Chris Stinson, Christian Sullivan and Frank Vince.
Set design: Michael Avolio. Lighting design: Don Slater. Costume design: Stephanie Mumford. Sound design: Ed Moser. Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.