A brilliantly staged classic pulls back the covers on our dreams

The Iceman Cometh

By Eugene O’Neill, directed by Lynda McClary

At Fells Point Corner Theatre through Feb. 12

Warning: The Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production of The Iceman Cometh requires no small commitment. Like Titanic, James Cameron’s ponderous epic, this production runs for three and a half hours. Fortunately, the resemblance ends there. FPCT’s Iceman is an absorbing, thought-provoking tour de force, one that does justice to an ambitious play that is rarely staged. This many-layered, beautifully crafted piece takes on—among other grand themes—the psychological implications of the inevitability of death and the question of whether dreams and delusions impede us from a transformative acceptance of reality or whether they are the key to our survival.

Eugene O’Neill wrote Iceman in 1939, but it takes place in 1912, less than a decade before Prohibition. Set in a rooming house/bar in New York City, the four-act play features a huge, bawdy cast (18 strong in the FPCT version). The three female characters are all prostitutes, the remainder deadbeat drunks. Two of the men are veterans of the Second Boer War, from opposing sides. Other characters include an Italian anarchist, a former journalist, a disgraced cop, and the only African-American in the play, the one-time proprietor of a gambling house. All are now united by their love of drink and, as is slowly revealed, by each man’s attachment to his own particular delusion, or “pipe dream.” As Larry (Mark Scharf)—a disillusioned anarchist who claims to long only for death—says sardonically, “They’ve all a touching credulity concerning tomorrows.”

The show opens at a low-rent bar, late at night. Men sleep at tables throughout the place, draped wherever they happened to have passed out. They are waiting for the semiannual arrival of Hickey (Tony Colavito), a hardware salesman who has made himself universally loved mainly by buying everyone drinks when he visits. But when Hickey finally arrives, he’s changed. He still buys drinks, but he imbibes none himself. And now he fancies himself a savior: He has found peace by “throw[ing] overboard the damned lying pipe dream that’d been making me miserable”—the dream has something to do with his wife but we do not learn her fate until near the end—and he’s come to spread his gospel. Colavito is riveting (and sometimes, appropriately, annoying) as a zealot animated by an obsession—the new-found freedom he believes he’s captured—and simultaneously as the embodiment of a deep nihilism. (Colavito was a moving Willie Loman in last year’s Vagabond Players production of Death of a Salesman, and his ability to portray inner conflict comes to bear here as well.) The “iceman” of the title is a reference to a joke about infidelity that Hickey was wont to make, but Hickey himself is also a sort of iceman. As Larry puts it, “Be God, I felt he’d brought the touch of death on him!”

Under Hickey’s influence, nearly all the characters begin to confront the stories that have long kept them afloat. Saloon proprietor Harry (a mercurial, blustery Rodney Bonds) hasn’t left the building since his wife died 20 years before; Hickey convinces him he must step outside, and immediately. Harvard Law School alumnus Willie (Rodney Bonds’ son, Ian Bonds, a hilarious, baby-faced drunk with a penchant for song) finds himself on his way to ask for a job from the District Attorney, a fool’s errand but one he’s long deluded himself into thinking he’d successfully pursue. Hickey berates bartender Rocky (Frank Vince, who pulls off a convincing thick Brooklyn accent) into realizing that he is a pimp, a fact he has never wanted to face. (Of his “hoo-ahhs,” Rocky had previously told himself this: “[It’s s]trictly business, like dey was fighters and I was deir manager, see?”) One by one, the men follow Hickey’s lead, and one by one they return to the bar, in a worse state than ever. Now, even alcohol is no comfort. “There’s no life or kick in it anymore,” complains Harry, having ventured briefly outside and fled, terrified and defeated, back to the bar. One begins to realize what a beautiful, hopeful place the saloon was prior to Hickey’s arrival.

As the story progresses, Hickey’s own “pipe dream” and the drastic solution he arrived at to dispel it—or so he thinks—are gradually revealed. And Larry, the stalwart who alone seemed to resist Hickey’s salesmanship, has perhaps the most brutal awakening of all. In the end, he and the audience are left to decide whether Hickey was selling snake oil or salvation. Is Larry right, as he puts it early on, that “[t]he lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober”? O’Neill called The Iceman Cometh “a big kind of comedy that doesn’t stay funny very long.” It remains an apt description, and the Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production is a rich, haunting rendition.

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