"A Life" is eloquent, literate witty, and touching -- a rich and communicative theater event. Everything about this production -- including Robert Fletcher's costumes and deep-perspective scenery, and Marc Weiss's beautifully subtle lighting -- has been delicately harmonized. And it is acted with extraordinarily touching humanity by two generations of gifted players.
Hugh Leonard sheds fresh illumination on some of his favorite themes in this rich new character play at the Morosco Theater. The life in question belongs to Desmond Drumm, the austere civil servant who made brief but important appearances in Mr. Leonard's prize-winning "Da" two seasons ago. Drumm takes center stage in a work distinguished by Mr. Leonard's skillful blending of full-bodied comedy and deep-seated pathos.
Like Moliere's misanthropic Alceste, Drumm doesn't tolerate fools gladly. Indeed, he scarcely tolerates anyone at all. A determined loner, he isolates and insulates himself behind his own superiority. In "Da," Drumm confided that he had long ago decided to have standards rather than "indiscriminate friendships. . . . it's my own misfortune that so few people have come up to them." A more embittered and belatedly wiser Drumm admits that the standards he cherished have themselves failed him.
Yet because of the humanity and understanding with which the role has been perceived and acted, drumm wins compassion rather than scorn. He's the kind of stiff-necked sourpuss to whom one wants to say: "Des, old boy, you're your own worst enemy. Give life a chance." But the comeback would be too scathing to encourage further remonstrance. for the man perversely torments himself with the enmity he incites. Whether in semantics or deportments, he is punctilious to a fault and the fault is self-justification. Yet his love for language and learning is genuine.
In a variation of the technique employed for "Da," Mr. Leonard uses flashbacks to unfold the life story of this humdrum civil servant. They transport the spectator from the south-of-Dublin town of the present to the youthful days of the four principal characters. Thus we leanr how an intellectually adamant young Des crossly repulsed mary (Lauren Thompson), the high-spirited love of his life. Mary turned to the rough-and-tumble Lar Kearns (David Ferry) while Des wound up with Dolly (Dana Delany), a prettily artless creature with a sweet disposition and no great store of intellect.
Through its fluid counterpoint of present and past, "A Life" traces patterns of cause and effect, of how formative experiences shape the future. In Drumm's case, an early upbringing by a stern schoolmaster father, who inflicted canings, have left their harsh psychological mark. Incorrigibly pedantic and often fiercely witty, Des offends by his very obsession with correctness. Nevertheless, as couples, the Drumms and the Kearnses remained friends until an estrangement which has lasted six years as the play opens.
As the elderly Drumm simultaneously facing retirement and a grim medical verdict, Roy Dotrice personifies the individual who has attempted a lifelong emotional hunger strike. The hunger remains yet Drumm disdains self-pity and Mr. Dotrice respects him for it. Hence his tragedy becomes a natural subject for comedy. Pat Hingle's Lar Kearns is every inch and pound the earthy, good-natured, lovable ne'er-do-well. As the respective wives, helen Stenborg embodies all of Dolly's sweet forbearance, while Aideen O'Kelly's zesty, auburn-haired mary demonstrates that the girl is mother to the woman.