In Hugh Leonard’s A Life, a quiet comedy of character, the thrill lies in watching a great actor head a first-rate ensemble (Irish Rep). Fritz Weaver portrays curmudgeonly civil servant Desmond Drumm in director Charlotte Moore’s revival of the 20-year-old Broadway hit. The play stands up well. Literate and witty, it brims with affection for its provincial Irish characters while steering clear of sentimentality.
Drumm, the proud, educated son of a harsh schoolmaster, suffers no fools lightly—but believes himself surrounded by them. Learning he has six months to live, the meticulous keeper-of-records demands “an audit” of his life. For this he goes to Mary (Pauline Flanagan), the woman he loved 40 years ago, and ends an ancient quarrel with her. As Mary, her husband Lar (David Costelloe), and Drumm’s wife Dolly (Paddy Croft) revisit the past with him, four other actors (John Keating, Heather O’Neill, Derdriu Ring, Jarlath Conroy) portray the characters’ younger selves through their courtships and marriages, foreshadowing who they will become. It’s soon apparent why Mary wed the vital, if perpetually unemployed, Lar rather than the righteous, repressed Desmond.
Weaver plays Drumm so dry he almost crinkles, his back ramrod-straight but his head and arms collapsed inward. He cuts off his words and quips with razor precision while trembling with unexpressed pain. And he makes understandable and touching this man who can’t apologize without insulting all over again.
Under Moore’s crisp direction, Drumm always stands apart from the group—in physical as well as emotional space. As accusations fly and olive branches are proffered, the laughs ring out clear among the somber shadows and ironies.