Aristocrats, Organic Touchstone Company. Though the conceits of Brian Friel’s tragic drama about an upper-class Irish family may be a trifle shopworn, it’s difficult to dispute their profound emotional intensity. Even at his most derivative and blatant–Friel borrows from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and introduces a pesky American interviewer only to expose the O’Donnell family’s contradictory beliefs–the playwright is so skilled and graceful that his lack of originality is never troubling. In fact, the play’s utter predictability may be what makes it intensely gripping.
Employing a passel of self-destructive characters boasting a litany of delicately rendered neuroses–alcoholism, infantilism, pure self-hatred–Friel constructs a fiercely intelligent critique of upper-class society that resonates on both political and personal levels. It’s a testament to his talent and humanity that we’re able to feel great affection for the characters even as we loathe their shallow values: we know we’re in the presence of a master dramatist.
Organic Touchstone artistic director Ina Marlowe has taken a profoundly simple and intelligent approach: cast some of the best actors in Chicago, give them a good script, and let them go to it. Brad Armacost is particularly touching as a middle-aged case of arrested development whose desperate cheerfulness masks incomparable pain and self-loathing. The only troubling element in this otherwise excellent production is Kevin Snow’s cramped set, which makes the Touchstone Theatre space seem smaller than it’s ever seemed before. –Adam Langer