The play received a transcendent Chicago premiere in 1984 at the old Body Politic, and now "A Life," with Daniel J. Travanti as its star, has returned to open the season for Irish Repertory (in the same second-floor space at Victory Gardens Theater where the Body Politic production was presented).
Travanti, his body tightly wound and his face expressing a perpetual state of dyspepsia, portrays Drumm, trying to sum up his life as he nears retirement and faces some distressing medical news. Brigid Duffy, soft and endearing, is his devoted wife Dolly, who cheerfully accepts his patronizing airs.
The other couple, estranged from Drumm for six years, consists of Mary (Deanna Dunagan), a lively, spunky woman who years ago had rejected Drumm's crosspatch ways and married Kearns (Ray Wild), the amiable, incompetent layabout who adores her.
The play unfurls in the wake of Drumm's visit to his doctor. Wanting to clear up any problems in his life, he arranges to make a conciliatory visit with Dolly to Mary and Kearns. But the meeting, far from clearing the air, stirs up old animosities and brings to the surface some ugly truth of his past.
Along with this story set in 1977, the play flashes back 40 years to show how Drumm, Dolly, Mary and Kearns got that way, in the days when all four of them were young and their lives were not yet set.
Director Richard Block deftly wends his way through these time changes, with the aid of the rise and fall of Lynne Koscielniak's lighting design
Thanks to the skills of his four younger actors Brian J. Gill, Alyson Green, Blaine D. Vedros and Kristina Martin he also is able to mirror details of gesture and vocal patterns between the two couples. Gill as the intense young Drumm and Green as the fiery young Mary are splendid in suggesting the physical and psychological traits that Travanti and Dunagan embody in their later years.
At this stage, the senior actors still seem tentative and a tad self-conscious in their Irishness. Travanti and Dunagan sometimes are a beat behind in their reactions; and Wild is all bluff and hail fellow, not evoking enough of Kearns' vulnerability.
It's a rich, full "Life," partially realized in this production.