Danahey NOT On the Loose: When I Met Brian Dennehy

A Playbill memento of Brian Dennehy

Actor Brian Dennehy passed away April 15 at the age of 81. The prior link takes you to a fine news obit. This upcoming one leads to the Goodman Theatre tribute.

I had the good fortune to see him perform in five different productions staged in Chicago. 

Back in 1998 Dennehy starred as beleaguered Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In 2002, he portrayed patriarch James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

I caught Dennehy the following year in a tour of The Exonerated, a present-day work based on interviews with former death row inmates who were eventually found to be innocent.

It was the only production I saw featuring Dennehy that wasn’t a collaboration between the formidable actor and director Robert Falls at the Goodman.

Over the decades, the two men created some of the most riveting theater happening anywhere. They revitalized classics, complicated works about shattered dreams, illusions, delusions, broken people and broken families.

I heard audience members complain such plays were too depressing. Some would leave during intermission. At the tragic end of the Death of a Salesman I attended, a young man uttered, “Wow. That was deep.”

Depressing and deep aren’t our usual fare. We’ve been raised on a steady diet of Happy Meals. Art can be kale. 

Anyway, the last time I would see Brian Dennehy perform was in 2012. Falls directed while Dennehy played barfly and disillusioned former radical Larry Slade in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.

It was the second time the duo were involved in a Goodman production of Iceman. The first occurred in 1990 when Dennehy played Hickey, the traveling salesman central to the tale.

Back then, Dennehy told the Chicago Tribune he wouldn’t do ‘Iceman’ in any other city. “Chicago has a real theater audience,” he told the Trib. “So, hell, when it comes to doing 41/2 hours of Eugene O’Neill, this is the place.”

To say the 2012 version was a riveting night of gritty theater, by turns humorous and horrific, filled with laughs and laments. To say it demanded endurance from actors as well as the audience is an understatement.

I was lucky enough to meet Dennehy once, in February 11 years ago when he played aging New England farmer Ephraim Cabot in a Falls-directed Goodman production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms.

Here’s a revised version of what I wrote about meeting Dennehy in February 2009:

I met my Uncle Brian Dennehy last night after watching him hit the boards in DESIRE Under the Elms (I write it that way because the ads for it really stress DESIRE and almost whisper the Under the Elms part).

OK, so Brian Dennehy’s not really my uncle. You caught me in another lie on the way to my truth. Whatever.

Either way, Uncle Brian strained to put on his socks as we entered his dressing room after the show. His feet seemed as if they had been through gruesome battles.

Dennehy was listening to some Bill Evans jazz on his portable. That had him reminiscing about seeing the fabled pianist at the Village Vanguard.

Uncle Brian looked tired. How couldn’t he?

DESIRE Under the Elms is a son of a bitch of a play, my unofficial uncle said. 

The playwriting of Irish-American, Pulitzer and Nobel-winner Eugene O’Neill reflected the torment of his own life – and the Irish way with language, lacerating with laughs, piercing its way in flights toward tragedy.

In DESIRE, an take on Greek tragedies, involves lots of shouting, treachery, torment, a love triangle, sex, deception, maybe some actual love, and infanticide. Plus, this production had reams of rocks on stage.

The set looked like an expansive, grotesquely decorated fish tank. Brownish gray boulders abounded, piled like the walls of a fallen castle. Some dangled from the ceiling. A cabin on ropes came up and down from the catwalks.

Uncle Brian said he wasn’t f–kiing sure what’s up with the f–king set. That’s his buddy, director Robert Falls’ decision. And all the f–king nudity, what’s the f–king big deal, and why the f–k even have it, Dennehy groused.

Yeah, Dennehy swore a lot. BFD!. He was nice enough to chat with me, a no-name writer at a small publication, and with my friend Vince. Besides, graciousness, gruffness mixed with a tad of ruefulness remains a fine combination for quite a few conversations.

Vince had taken a back-hurting tumble on an ice patch by his apartment building earlier that Saturday. Uncle Brian told Vince in no uncertain terms that Vince better not f–k with that. Get to a doctor come Monday if not sooner, he warned.

(Vince opted for ibuprofen and a heating pad, if I remember correctly.)

The discussion wandered, much like an O’Neill drama can. Or not.

We talked about how Wall Street had pretty much f–ked up the country. That asshole Bernie Madoff bilked money that they might still otherwise have, as one example. 

The Wall Street-caused recession meant less money for nonprofits. Those included The Innocence Project, which helps free people wrongly on Death Row, and with which my Dennehy was involved. It meant less funding readily available for the arts and for serious theater.

Uncle Brian went on about how Desire Under the Elms has been cut to just under two hours. You can always cut O’Neill, he said.

I thought, in these times, you gotta, right? Who has the patience and attention span anymore? Hell, you’re probably bored reading this already.

Brian Dennehy in the 2009 Goodman Theatre production of Desire Under the Elms.
Photo courtesy of Liz Lauren.

DESIRE was supposed to go to Broadway, but on this night at least Uncle Brian had his doubts. Broadway is Disneyland now, and even his buddy Angela Lansbury was having a hard time getting a production of Blithe Spirit going. Who had the money to see it and what it would cost, anyway, he wondered. (Apparently someone did. Lansbury wound up winning a Tony later in 1999 for playing Madmae Arkati in the revival of Noel Coward’s comedy.)

The female lead in DESIRE, Carla Gugino, had her career heating up with the Watchmen movie about to open and her one of the stars. She’d be leaving the cast to promote her films.

(The play did make it to New York with Gugino. The New York Times gave the production a favorable review.)

Uncle Brian, like I and way too f–king many of us at the time, was wondering what might be next for us all for work in the broken economy.

We may have even talked a bit about Ireland, where Dennehy and his family moved for a time before heading back to Connecticut.

During the discussion dumbass me said the “M” word. Trying to impress way too hard, I mentioned seeing M-beth at Chicago Shakespeare Theater the prior weekend. 

It’s bad luck to say M-beth in a theater, but I forgot. Uncle Brian didn’t, but he forgave me my foible. Luck’s been bad enough, can’t get much worse, he said.

After chatting with Vince and me, Dennehy said he was heading over to meet up with a buddy of his in the Scottish play, anyway.

Like a nice uncle, Dennehy said goodbye from the dressing room door as he showed us back down the hallway and out into the slippery night.