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The Long Red Road

The Goodman Theatre presents Philip Seymour Hoffman's intelligent staging of Brett C. Leonard's solemn play about an unhappy alcoholic and his brother. logo
Greta Honold and Tom Hardy in The Long Red Road
(© Liz Lauren)
Sam is an alcoholic. His brother, Bob, is not. Their differences -- past and present -- are the meat of Brett C. Leonard's new play, The Long Red Road, now premiering at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

The work is directed by Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and performed by an excellent six-person cast led by British stage star Tom Hardy with intelligence and integrity. Indeed, Hoffman has directed the play with restraint and virtually no high theatrics. In keeping with Leonard's solemnity, as well, Hoffman provides no comic relief whatsoever. The pace is deliberate but unflagging. But ultimately, the play displays more intellect than gut power. We can't just pity or abhor these characters; we need to care about them.

Leonard splits the play between a Kansas farm and a shabby South Dakota flat. (The latter setting allows Leonard arbitrary opportunities to introduce some Native American references, including "the long red road, which is an Indian phrase for the path of a recovering alcoholic.) Act I alternates between Sam (Hardy) and Annie (Greta Honold) in South Dakota, and Kansas, where Bob (Chris McGarry) lives with Sandra (Katy Sullivan) and adolescent daughter Tasha (Fiona Robert).

Until the close of Act I, Leonard's pithy dialogue offers neither exposition nor events to connect the two settings, and then -- wham! -- we discover that nine years earlier, an inebriated Sam smashed the family car, killing his infant daughter and destroying his wife's legs, but leaving himself uninjured. He fled and never looked back, leaving the care of his wife and surviving daughter -- Sandra and Tasha -- to Bob.

The moment you see Sam -- who is clearly both physically and psychologically wounded in Hardy's detailed performance -- you know he's a walking dead man. He's slovenly, unemployed and completely debilitated by drink, which is the only way he can kill himself. One wonders why Annie, an attractive and a productive school teacher, stays with him. Only in an Act II scene with Tasha does Sam reveal some tenderness, which may be why Annie loves him.

Act II also offers back-to-back monologues by Bob and Sam in which they explain everything, including a sibling rivalry that predates Sam's drinking days. As well-delivered as they are, these blatantly expository speeches come from left field and overstate what needs to be known. In fact, overstatement is the biggest problem with The Long Red Road, as in an uncomfortable sex scene in the opening moments of the play or the scene where Annie tells her class how Columbus abused the native population, and then has them recite a mantra: "I will be happy, I will be loved, I deserve good."

The play's other problems include a situation between Bob and Tasha being telegraphed far too early, and some obscure and confusing dialogue by Bob to Sam about things Dad did in the barn. Leonard simply seems to be squeezing a bit too much onto the plate, with the result that much of the work feels forced.

Eugene Lee's vast, rustic-looking unit set fills the deep thrust stage and a wide platform at the back of it. One section is two stories high, and the theater's lighting grid has been completely covered with wooden struts and planks to simulate a barn roof. It's massive overkill for the needs of this small-scale drama, and is used only to blow billows of smoke at the play's fiery conclusion -- which really demands flames. If Leonard wants a cataclysmic conclusion to this play, he needs to find a more effective device.

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