Quotidian Theatre Company’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s ambitious ensemble piece The Iceman Cometh opens tonight and runs through November 24. Steve Beall has appeared in five previous QTC productions, including last season’s hit musical James Joyce’s The Dead. He has also acted with Pallas, Red Eye Gravy, Spooky Action, Chesapeake Shakespeare, Synetic, Lean & Hungry, Journeymen, Taffety Punk, Constellation, Folger Shakespeare, Forum, Inkwell, Bay, and Rep Stage theatre companies. This is the first of two pieces he’s written aboutIceman:
Rotgut and the Blessed Rage for Order
I’m playing Larry Slade in what I believe to be a unique – and uniquely entertaining – production of Eugene O’Neill’s magnum opus, The Iceman Cometh. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play one of my favorite characters in American theatre and – more importantly – to play it in a way that makes sense to me as no other production of Iceman has.
Now, let’s be clear: it’s likely that I actually don’t understand the play. When every take I’ve heard or seen on a play seems “off” to me, it’s probably not “them”, but me.
It seems to boil down to this: nearly everyone finds this play depressing and dark. I don’t. I’ve found it hilarious, touching, liberating, and uplifting nearly every time I’ve read it. I say “nearly every time” because the first time I read it I found it interminable and boring. But at that rather early time in my life, I found a lot of things interminable and boring.
But the next couple of times I read it, plus reading it again in preparation for this production, it’s had the sort of effect on me that “feel good” movies are supposed to have but rarely do. It restores my faith in the human enterprise. Our production of it is funnier and more raucous with each rehearsal, seems to me, and gets closer and closer to the heart of the play.
A friend who was saying she probably wasn’t going to be able to see the show said, “You know, it’s probably just as well. I hate leaving a theatre depressed, and even though I think it’s O’Neill’s best, well… you know: it’s just so depressing.”
She’s not alone. Even the play’s biggest fans say that. It is, after all, a play about a barroom full of lice-ridden drunks who have no life outside the confines of the run-down NYC hotel where they are passing the early part of the 1900’s. They’ve all got a foot in the grave.
It’s summer of 1912 as they wait for Theodore “Hickey” Hickman to arrive for the 60th birthday of Harry Hope, the hotel’s reclusive (and, like all of them, alcoholic) owner. Hickey’s popular with all the denizens of the flophouse, partly because he “blows in all his money” on a “periodical drunk”, during which he buys everyone’s drinks all night, and entertains them with his humor and general bonhomie…
Everyone loves Hickey. Hickey always admired the way his father – a small town preacher – sold people “nothing for something” and thus he became a hardware salesman. He’s changed since they last saw him, though, and suddenly their down-and-out life together seems under attack. Their pipe dreams begin to blur and fade, and with them, life itself seems to ebb.
The thing is, though, that for all their brokenness and for all the ways in which life and addiction have ravaged them, they have created a community of real affection and concern together. The delicate house of cards that is their “family circle” depends upon the ability of each of these men to find a way of understanding their position in a world that has no use for them.
The stories they tell themselves and each other in order to make sense of the world not only give them a way of coping with the past – a landscape of heartbreaks, betrayals, failures and losses – but also give them a way to go on living into a future they at once fear and crave.
“Pipe dreams”, we’re told, are the “lies” that “give life to the whole misbegotten, mad lot of us, drunk or sober.” If that’s so, what will happen if those pipe dreams are stripped away?
“Drunk or sober.” So this isn’t just a play about drunks, but about all of us. We create a self and a world for that self to live in. Our salvation doesn’t arise from a god-given soul; it doesn’t exist outside, as a pre-ordained reality, a set of immutable facts. We suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and then do what we must in order to move on, carrying with us the social, historical, economic, geo-political, racial and romantic realities that have helped to make us what we are.
But what happens if we “see through” all the illusions we hold about what we are and what the world is? Will we peel back all the layers and find a liberating truth, free at last from pipe dreams – or, in the Freudian terms so deeply influential when the play was written and first produced (1939/45), “cured of neuroses”? If we strip away the carefully evolved layers of meaning and community and expose them for what they are – defenses against confronting the empty truth of ourselves and the world – what will remain? A purer, clearer self, able to face reality squarely and live more deeply and freely?
Maybe. Or maybe not. What if there is nothing at the center of a human being? What if there is, I guess, no soul? And no God. What if our understanding of ourselves and the world is always – and inevitably – just an ever-changing construction cobbled together out of our need for each other and our need for a story to make sense of who and what we are and how we got this way – our “blessed rage for order”?
With no soul at our center and no God at the center of the universe, what is there to give authentic meaning to human life? Any human life?
What if to give up pipe dreams – and the community and affections they make possible – is to give up our humanity, to become brutes? If, in order to find and face “the truth”, you take away the fragile, caringly-constructed network of friendships, shared meanings, and even “illusions” that bind us together, what remains?
What if it turns out that’s what we really are at our core – broken-hearted pipe dreamers, every one of us, drunk or sober? Would that make it a form of brutality – a sort of existentialist murder – to tear down the pipe dreams of another – and suicide to tear down one’s own?
As Larry Slade says, in the end, it’s all questions and no answers.
Okay, so I’ve hardly made the case that the play’s not depressing. But remember: it’s as much about the good humor, love, and imagination that fill the emptiness left by the disappearance of God and soul as it is about the emptiness itself. And it’s about the necessity of creating a world of meaning and love – and holding to it with all your heart.
It’s a matter of life and death – but mostly of life.
Quotidian Theatre Company presents
The Iceman Cometh
by Eugene O’Neill
Oct 25 – Nov 24, 2013
Featuring Steve Beall, Matt Boliek, Frank Britton, Danny Brooks, John Decker, Tiffany Garfinkle, Genevieve James, Carolyn Kashner, Steve LaRocque, Ken Lechter, Brian McDermott, Brandon Mitchell, Louis Pangaro, Manolo Santalla, Ted Schneider, Chris Stinson, Christian Sullivan, and Frank Vince.
Director: Michael Avolio.
Artistic Adviser: Bill Largess.
Stage Manager: Christine Alexander.
Show times are 8pm Fridays and Saturdays, and 2pm Sundays, with one additional 2pm performance on Saturday, November 23.
Tickets are $30, or $25 for seniors and students, and can be purchased by cash or check at the door, online at Brown Paper Tickets, or by phone at 1-800-838-3006 ext 1 (ask for Quotidian Theatre Company). $15 per ticket for groups of 10 or more (email for reservations). Subscribers, email QTC or call 301-816-1023 for reservations.
All performances are held at The Writer’s Center: 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD.
The venue is a short walk from the Bethesda Metro Station. There is free parking on Saturdays and Sundays.