The Long Red Road” is a great work for those who adore lovingly detailed depictions of utter misery and despair. Brett C. Leonard’s play — directed at Chicago’s Goodman Theater by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starring rising British thesp Tom Hardy — mires us deep in the cycle of alcoholism, abuse and co-dependency. The intensely moody drama is slowly paced, intimate and compellingly painful.
Hardy plays Sam, a far-gone drunk living in South Dakota. His angelic girlfriend, Annie (Greta Honold), wakes him up each morning from his stupor on the rug, encourages him to eat something and heads off to her job as a teacher. Sam heads to a bar, sometimes making it home uninjured, sometimes not.
Meanwhile, in Kansas, Sam’s brother, Bob (Chris McGarry), cares for the family Sam left behind following an alcohol-induced accident some nine years earlier that left one of his two children dead and his wife, Sandra (Katy Sullivan), without her legs. But Bob is reaching his own point of despair as Sam’s daughter, Tasha (Fiona Robert), matures into a rebellious teenager.
Hoffman lets all this develop slowly — very slowly — and the playing has a hyper-realistic feel even as the director layers the action in the two locations on top of each other in Eugene Lee’s subtly complex thrust set. It’s a theatrical form of filmic double exposure; the characters inhabit the same space, emphasizing how intertwined they are even as we await the fleshing out of their relations and Sam and Bob’s fraught reunion.
Leonard and the fine cast have these characters down cold, each with his or her own emotional damage.
Hardy is excellent as the handsome, always popular but thoroughly self-loathing guy who has long since given up on giving up the bottle. Honold is relentlessly believable in perhaps the hardest part, the co-dependent enabler, ever drawn to the possibility of saving a damaged guy. McGarry seems constantly at war with himself as the unappreciated older brother. He has managed to subdue his demons and do the right thing, until he finally doesn’t in the show’s disturbing, and typically silent, climactic scene.
From a craft perspective, the play suffers from being a bit predictable, the revelations mildly overforeshadowed and stripped of full dramatic impact. AndLeonard’s writing is not without cliches, in particular the contrived use of Lakota chief Clifton (Marcos Akiaten), who plays bartender and friend, the stoic receptacle for confession. There’s a lot of Sam Shepard in this work, but Leonard doesn’t yet have his sense of the archetype as theatrical metaphor.
And don’t expect any levity to lighten the heavy — and occasionally heavy-handed — load. Leonard and Hoffman are careful to allow no humor, perhaps for justified fear of making light of the subject; no black comedy here, just blackness (or, at least, extremely dim lighting).
It’s a noble choice, but it also has its consequences. It takes a long time to feel these characters have any redeeming features at all.
The show walks a very fine line, and the effort is intriguing and at least partially successful. While it allows you to see the situation as hopeless, it must hold out that tiniest sliver of possibility for a happy ending somewhere in there — that, as the final image of light and smoke suggests, there’s rebirth in destruction and not just more destruction.
The play gets under your skin and convincingly takes you to the most unpleasant of psychic terrains. It ruins your day and, strangely, leaves you wanting more in that unrelentingly human but foolish belief in better tomorrows.