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THE ICEMAN COMETH, a four-hour marathon at Ensemble

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Eugene O’Neill, along with such writers as Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, transformed western theatre.  They transitioned the stage from a place for escapist ideas into a mecca for the examination of real life problems.  The quartet laid the foundation for what is now known as “the modern theatre” and laid the groundwork for such luminaries as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and William Inge.

O’Neill wrote in the dialect of the area of the country in which his plays are set.  He looked at a wide view of the population, and examined the struggle of people to set goals, maintain their hopes and dreams, and confront disillusionment and despair.

O’Neill was extremely prolific.  Between 1914 and 1983, he wrote over 30 plays including such masterpieces as ANNA CHRISTI, THE EMPEROR JONES, DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, MORNING BECOMES ELECTRA, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, all with serious themes, and one comedy, AH,WILDERNESS.  He won the Nobel Prize and four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.

One of his epic scripts, THE ICEMAN COMETH is in production at Ensemble Theatre.

The script was first professionally staged in 1946 and centers on Harry Hope’s Greenwich Village bar and rooming house.  It’s 1912.  The patrons, a group of alcoholics who use liquor to dull their senses, spend day after day, year after year, inside the establishment, forming a dysfunctional family.  Most are penniless, living off the generosity of the owner, who is psychologically no better off than his customers.  Three prostitutes hang around the place which is run by two bartenders.

The group looks forward to the semi-annual visits of Theodore Hickman, know to them as Hickey.  Hickey, who buys them all booze, tells funny stories, and relates mythical tales about his wife and her so-called iceman boyfriend, who supposedly shows up when Hickey leaves on one of his selling trips.

Hickey is due as it’s Harry’s birthday.  There is much anticipation.  Hickey arrives, but is seemingly a different person.  Instead of a jokester, he preaches that “honesty with yourself leads to true peace.”  He attempts to motive the men to turn off their pipe dreams and return to the real world.  They each go forth to face the world without the protection of their liquored personas.  The results are disastrous, the goals unmet, and the play ends with a revelation and disillusionment.

THE ICEMAN COMETH is not an easy sit.  It’s four hours of philosophical investigation of anarchism, socialism, depression and despair.

The Ensemble production, under the direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz, is well paced.  The major problem, besides the length, is the poorly staged ending.

Unfortunately, to reveal the problem requires telling part of the shocking conclusion of the play, but there is no way to avoid it.  One of the characters commits suicide.  We hear what sounds like a gun shot but the script lines relate that the victim jumped from a window.  In addition, the person who is supposed to see him jump is placed on a staircase from which he could not possibly see the act, resulting in a confounding ending.

The cast is universally excellent.  Dana Hart as Hickey textures his role with realism.  His almost half-hour fourth act monologue, though overly long, is compellingly presented.

Other impressive performances include Mitch Rose (Willie) who goes through agonizing alcoholic shivers and withdrawal before our eyes.

Michael Regnier (Harry) vividly portrays his character’s agoraphobia.

Robert Hawkes (Larry Slade) is the intellect held captive by his need to escape from past reality or face profound despair.

Bobby Williams (Joe), effectively develops the black man who carries the strong O’Neill messages of bitterness and envy.

Valerie Young is pathetically real as the hooker who wants a different life, but can’t escape from this all encompassing world.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE ICEMAN COMETH is a daunting undertaking.  It has a huge mostly male cast, all of whom have major speeches.  Keeping an audience’s attention for four act, is nearly impossible.  Ensemble should be praised for not only the general quality of this production, but for taking on staging this classic.