Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mahoney Embodies 'A Life' Worth Savoring

Theater Review

A Life
a play by Hugh Leonard
Northlight Theatre
Skokie, IL

Excepting plays for which I have tickets through a subscription, there are three main motivations for me choosing ones to see: 1) Good reviews in the press; primarily by Chris Jones of the Tribune and/or Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times, but also by the Reader, TheaterMania and Chicago Critic;  2) Recommendations from friends or relatives; 3) The desire to see certain performers.

Two or three of these often work in combination, and although Jones and Weiss gave 'A Life' positive reviews, it was the opportunity to see John Mahoney on stage once again that really prompted me to make the arduous three minute drive from my home to Skokie's Northlight Theatre. A decision made even easier by the fact that Northlight offers day-of-show rush tickets for just $20, based on availability; fortunately I was able to get one for last night. 

The play, written by Irishman Hugh Leonard in 1980 after his Da won the Tony for Best Play in 1978, chronicles the same four characters in both 1977 and 1937. The central character, Desmond Drumm (a minor character in Da, which I haven't seen) is played by John Mahoney as an elderly man who learns he doesn't have much time left, and by Matt Schwader in flashbacks revolving around Drumm's regrets regarding a lost love, the man she married instead and the woman that became his wife.

A bit confusing at first and made tougher to follow with Irish brogues throughout, the plotline is engaging and central theme thought-provoking, if neither are particularly novel. But the unique structure makes it work, particularly with great performances from all eight actors, with the pairs playing the same characters old & young matching up remarkably well. Notable among the younger set is Melanie Keller, with Rob Belushi (Jim's son) also engaging. Linda Kimbrough is particularly good in the 1977 scenes.

But it's the amazing Mahoney who carries the show. I've now had the pleasure of seeing him onstage six times, and though he'll always be better-known for his work as Martin Crane on Frasier, he really is a wonderful stage actor. And although he has been alarmingly thin for some time, his acting remains anything but frail. Onstage in 'A Life' for virtually the full two hours, he strikes just the right mix of pride, insolence, dignity and regret as a man facing his own mortality.

As a guy who didn't start acting professionally until he was 37, joined Steppenwolf in 1977 at John Malkovich's behest, won a Tony in 1986, had notable film roles in Moonstruck, Say Anything and others, garnered great acclaim on Frasier for 11 seasons, and since 2004 has seemingly been quite content performing on Chicagoland stages, including frequently at Northlight, John Mahoney himself really has lived a life worth admiring. He's already booked to return to Northlight in May 2011, but catch him now if you can.

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