Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

More Than Scenery

In The Long Red Road, sophisticated design conveys complicated emotions.



The Long Red Road Goodman Theatre

In a Chicago Tribune advance story on the new Goodman production of The Long Red Road, the play's director, Philip Seymour Hoffman, explains why he chose to mount the work's world premiere here rather than at his home base, the LAByrinth Theater Company in residence at New York's Public Theatre. "We didn't really have enough money to do it right ourselves," he says candidly.

Indeed, Hoffman's staging of the script must have cost a pretty penny. Playwright Brett C. Leonard juggles time and space to tell the story of a disastrously dysfunctional family, and Hoffman supports the script's inventive but potentially confusing narrative structure with ingenious—and undoubtedly expensive—visual design.

The Long Red Road (the title alludes to a Native American concept of the hard path toward inner peace) focuses on two brothers and the women in their lives. Sam lives in South Dakota, where his lover, Annie, teaches school on an Indian reservation. Charming and volatile, sentimental and abusive, Sam is a self-destructive loser whose binge drinking is so severe that it's only a matter of time before he succumbs to alcohol poisoning. Annie is determined to save him from himself, but while their passion and affection for each other is palpable, the best she can do is tell him she loves him every morning as she heads off to work while he lies in a drunken stupor on the bedroom floor.

Sam's industrious, responsible brother Bob is a Kansas mushroom farmer and a recovering alcoholic who endures near constant verbal abuse from his girlfriend, Sandra, a legless amputee. Though Bob and Sandra share a bed, she sexually rejects him. Meanwhile, Bob's harsh attempts to rein in the burgeoning sexuality of Sandra's rebellious 13-year-old daughter, Tasha, are fueled in part by his own attraction to her.

Gradually Leonard reveals the links between these two families: Sandra is Sam's wife and Tasha is his daughter. Nine years earlier Sam crashed his car while driving drunk, killing Tasha's younger sister and leaving Sandra disabled. He's been on the run and out of touch ever since, his alcoholism exacerbated by guilt and his fear of going to prison. Bob moved in with Sandra and Tasha to take care of them, becoming both their provider and the target of their displaced rage. Tasha yearns to be reunited with the father who abandoned her.

Leonard dramatizes the idea of people leading separate yet overlapping lives by using the same stage area and furniture to represent both homes. When Sam goes to the bathroom, he walks through Bob and Sandra's bedroom. When Bob watches TV, he sits next to Annie's bed. At one point, Annie washes dishes in the kitchen sink while Sandra sits at a table just a couple feet away, completely oblivious to Annie's presence, as if they were inhabiting parallel universes. The physical overlap prepares the audience for their inevitable emotional collision.

Leonard conveys the dynamics of denial, desire, loneliness, codependency, and sibling rivalry, and the first-rate cast probes every nuance. Much of the advance buzz about the production has centered on Tom Hardy, the British actor who plays Sam, but his intensity is matched in every respect by Greta Honold as Annie, Kathleen Sullivan as Sandra, and Chris McGarry as Bob. (McGarry, coincidentally, costarred in the national touring production of John Patrick Shanley's drama Doubt, playing a priest suspected of child molestation—the same role Philip Seymour Hoffman played in the film.) Best of all is teenage Fiona Robert, who captures every twist and turn of Tasha's psychological roller-coaster ride.

The play's unorthodox narrative construction challenges a director to make clear what's happening where and when. That's why the work of set designer Eugene Lee and lighting designer Edward Pierce—collaborators on such Broadway shows as Wicked and Ragtime—is crucial. Though the characters use the same kitchen and bathroom, Lee places Sam and Annie's bedroom close to the audience while keeping Sandra and Bob's sleeping area upstage, suggesting the geographic and emotional distance between the two couples. And Pierce's artful use of stage lighting in combination with illumination from table lamps makes the time and setting of each scene crystal clear while enhancing its emotional tone. Time will tell whether a production of The Long Red Road could grab an audience without the benefit of such sophisticated design. But in its Goodman Theatre incarnation, it's one of the most striking shows I've seen.   

Add a comment