Robert Anderson's "I Never Sang for My Father" is not a play that gets much respect these days. But thanks in no small measure to a richly complex performance from John Mahoney as the titular grim poppa, Anna D. Shapiro's lean, strikingly revisionist revival for Chi's Steppenwolf Theater Co. manages to resurrect this hoary old play.

Robert Anderson’s “I Never Sang for My Father” is not a play that gets much respect these days. But thanks in no small measure to a richly complex, often counterintuitive performance from John Mahoney (“Frasier”) as the titular grim poppa, Anna D. Shapiro’s lean, strikingly revisionist revival for Chi’s Steppenwolf Theater Co. manages to resurrect this hoary old play. The result is akin to, say, Stephen Daldry’s 1990s take on “An Inspector Calls,” and is worthy of further exposure.

Instead of overwrought domestic melodrama, here the piece plays as a deconstruction of American familial mores and emotional interdependence. This most male of plays still desperately wants to look at the American family without any reference to the sociopolitical contexts that inform our lives. But it packs an emotional punch.

Prior to her death midway through the play, the mother who leavens this drama says the main problem with American families is that children come to know their parents much too late in the parents’ lives. Instead of being a witness to youthful courtship and passion, they bear witness only to compromise and bitter acceptance. It’s a poignant observation, especially as delivered here by Deanna Dunagan.

There’s plenty of other wisdom expressed with similar simplicity. Daughter Alice (a complex Martha Lavey) points out that an emotionally absent father prepares one all the better for a world that’s remarkably free of compassion: a universal truth or a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s a contemplative moment the play is not assumed to provoke.

Director Shapiro, a stellar young Chi talent, frees the piece from its usual physical detritus, using merely a narrow, wheel-like strip of a revolving stage, coupled with a backdrop filled with photographs (taken by her own late father) of iconic elements of American domesticity involving both parenting and youth. The images float over the piece, lending just the right note of melancholy, but without ever overplaying the director’s hand.

Kevin Anderson, as the ineffectual son unable to stand up to his aged but overwhelming father, wanders listlessly through the play in a manner that recalls somewhat his perf in “Sunset Boulevard,” only without the cynical bite. It’s another unusual acting choice that reorders the play’s balance of sympathies. Instead of being merely a victim, Anderson suggests complicity in his own and his father’s lack of happiness. He’s never likable, which is a good thing.

But this is Mahoney’s show. Even as “Frasier” winds to a close, Mahoney has moved on to much darker, more challenging territory. He rarely shouts and he’s unafraid to evoke his seemingly irredeemable character’s softer side. It’s a rich picture of parental neuroses born of childhood anguish: moving and all too familiar.

I Never Sang For My Father

Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago; 511 Seats; $60 Top

Production

A Steppenwolf Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Robert Anderson. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro.

Creative

Sets, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Linda Roethke; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen; production stage manager, Malcolm Ewen. Artistic director, Martha Lavey. Opened, reviewed May 5, 2004. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Gene Garrison - Kevin Anderson Tom Garrison - John Mahoney Margaret Garrison - Deanna Dunagan Alice - Martha Lavey
With: Mattie Hawkinson, Ann Joseph, Rick Snyder, Alan Wilder, Lawrence Grimm, Robert Breuler.
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