Playwright Hugh Leonard finds heroes in humble men, the type who might live next door or sit near you on the bus. They are not heroes in any classical sense, but rather in the way they assemble the small shards and fractions of an average life, as in "A Life," his latest play, which opened a two-week run at the Olney Theatre Tuesday night (and which had a Broadway run last year), in a somewhat unready but delicate production.
Set in a small town outside Dublin, "A Life" is part of the same continuum as "Da," Leonard's earlier success, which premiered at Olney in 1973. "Da" grew from Leonard's memories of his father; "A Life" focuses on Desmond Drumm, the civil service employe who in "Da" gave the son a job and ended up feeling slighted by a moment of perceived indifference. Leonard has employed the same cinematic technique he used in "Da," with scenes changing as though with a shift of wind from the present to the past, from two couples in their 60s to the same couples in their 20s.
The character of Drumm, a curmudgeonly government worker on the verge of retirement, is the fulcrum of "A Life," but not, in the end, its hero. He is at a point in his life when he wants a summing up; he wants "an audit" and is prepared to take the consequences. Edward McPhillips has this pivotal role in Olney's production, and sadly has been unable to overcome the handicap of Olney's two-week rehearsal time. Unsure of his lines on opening night, he gave an outline of a character rather than a fully colored one. But he has a fine eye for detail -- the small twitch, the sour mouth -- and it seems likely his portrayal will flower as he becomes more confident of his words.
Drumm is a man who, standing with the crutch of "principle," has been cruel and mean to his fellows, shielding his vulnerability with a crust of disdain. A small, gray man from a tiny Irish town, he uses his cleverness and love of language to wound others with wit and derision they do not always understand. No one will attend his funeral, he predicts, except "a small group of split infinitives." He feels sorry for himself, believing he has paid the price for daring to be "different" from the average dumb cluck, and for keeping "standards" while others compromised.
He and his wife, and their friends Mary and Lar, live in a lower-middle-class, small-town world in which owning a "motor car" seems the height of luxury and education is not considered a necessity. The young Drumm lost Mary to Lar, an oafish man whose good nature compensates for his inability to find a job. Drumm married Dolly, a sweet soul who can't help being profoundly irritating. During the play, Drumm repairs a breach in his friendship with Mary and Lar, with the flashbacks to their youthful selves revealing the tricks and self-censorship of memory.
Was his long-ago speech at an oratorical contest a rout or a success? Did he and Mary ever get beyond the flirtation stage? It is hard to tell; ambiguities are the stuff of life.
In many stories, the lonely crusader, the one who is different on "principle," is the hero, the wronged bearer of a standard of integrity. In "A Life," the oafish Lar and the irritating Dolly prove to have more generous spirits than Drumm, the man of principle, and Mary matches Drumm's "truth" with more than enough of her own. In the end, Drumm acknowledges his failure: "Instead of friends, I've had standards . . . My contempt for the town, for the wink and the easy nod and the easier grin -- it was cowardice . . . What I called principles was vanity . . ."
The rest of the production had an uncooked feel about it, a sense of something about to happen that never does. The strength of Pauline Flanagan as Mary and Paddy Croft as Dolly is welcome; John Neville-Andrews, while showing a bit too much shoe polish in his hair, gives the character of Lar the jolliness and vulnerability it needs. The quartet of younger performers are all fine.
"A Life" is a difficult play. The scene changes are hard to accomplish without jerkiness, and it takes acute sensitivity to highlight the tension hidden behind the teacups. Director James Waring has that sensitivity, and the set and lighting he designed serves him well, although the scene changes, which are done mostly through lighting, could be accomplished more deftly. The three-arena set, representing past, present and both, looks rather like a diorama perched on Olney's tiny stage, a slice of dingy contemporary Irish life.