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‘Goldfish’ at Route 66: As compulsive gambler, Francis Guinan lifts a loser to grace

Submitted by on Jun 30, 2015 – 4:30 pm

No matter how wretched his luck, Leo (Francis Guinan, right) always has a tormented rationale for son Albert (Alex Stage). (Rob Zalas)“Goldfish” by John Kolvenbach, produced by Route 66 Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center through July 12. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Leo lives for those bets that feel good. You’d think winning would be the high, but no. When he has placed a bet that feels really good, Leo can breathe. Never mind the compulsive part, or the fact that his luck is seldom good, or that his college-age son has minded this financially and spiritually broken, irreducible addict since the lad was little more than a child.

There you have it, the starting point of John Kolvenbach’s eloquent, albeit painfully plain-spoken, play “Goldfish,” now in a sparkling run under the aegis of Route 66 Theatre. Count this one among the Chicago theater season’s sleeper gems. 

Leo (Francis Guian) is a compulsive gambler bent on keeping his grown son near, in John Kolvenbach's 'Goldfish.' (Rob Zalas)The deep resonance of “Goldfish” reflects Damon Kiely’s fine-tuned direction and a cast of four actors in perfect harmony. But its raw, gut-wrenching power owes most to Francis Guinan’s obsessive, desperate, devoutly self-destructive Leo, a man who would con his own sister as unblinkingly as he would pawn his watch to come up with another fistful of cash – just so he might breathe again.

Leo, a widower who lost his wife to cancer when they were both young, lives in New York with son Albert,  a capable and serious young man who manages every aspect of their household. Quietly confident and clear-sighted in the person of Alex Stage, Albert has resolved to leave the nest and go off to Vermont to college. He has made arrangements for his dad’s life to practically run on auto-pilot: The rent’s paid for the next several months and there’s a pre-paid account at the A&P; Albert even got Leo’s watch out of hock.

The main responsibility left to Leo is to place his unopened pension checks in a folder Albert provides. The money represents Albert’s tuition for the next semester. Leo shouldn’t need it, but his son certainly will.

None of this either impresses Leo or reassures him. He chides Albert for his delusional ambition. Does this kid from nowhere, from nothing, really think the rich brats at some hoity-toity college will accept him? But Albert is determined. He’s going, and that’s it.

Lucy (Tyler Meredith) corners Albert (Alex Stage) in the library with some direct questions and a clear purpose. (Rob Zalas)What Albert is not prepared for is being tracked down in the library by a pretty girl from one of his classes. Not that he hasn’t also noticed the smart-alecky girl, Lucy (the charmingly direct Tyler Meredith). She grills him about why he doesn’t speak in class, why he “hides out” in the library, and other curiosities of this intriguing, solitary but pleasant and generally appealing young man.

In a trice, Albert and Lucy are an item, which leads the girl to ask her mom about how it was when she and Lucy’s father met and began dating. Did they sleep together before they were married? Stuff like that.

If Guinan’s performance is an exquisite portrait of a man in shambles, Shannon Cochran’s boozy, ironic and above all bitter picture of Lucy’s mom Margaret is masterpiece of desiccated humor. Margaret’s ex-husband is long gone, like his irresistibly beautiful youth. Margaret remembers what a specimen that man – that boy – was, even if Lucy has to goad her into admitting it.

Lucy's mother Margaret (Shannon Cochran) has drifted through life at wry angles since her alcoholic husband died years ago. (Rob Zalas)But not long after the wedding, the illusion had evanesced. His hard drinking dissolved every promise. He’d crash and she’d pick up the pieces, in a cycle that kept repeating until her life was reduced to a vicious circle of heartbreak. So she divorced him. Still, that miserable union had produced Lucy, the one wonderful thing in Margaret’s hollow existence. All this she shares now for the first time with her treasured daughter, if only as a warning.

(It takes just a little pushing and pulling on Collette Pollard’s cleverly adaptable set — and a twist of Lee Keenan’s lighting — to transfer the viewer from Leo’s meager kitchen to Margaret’s more inviting abode.)

Margaret is less voluble when well-intentioned, very young Albert shows up seeking her blessing to marry Lucy. The answer: No. No. And No. Yet Albert is not easily daunted – not easily.  He hasn’t reckoned, however, on the destruction his father could wreak, left alone with his insatiable craving to gamble. Stunned by a message from the college dean, Albert returns home to confront Leo. Here begins the most devastating and brilliant stretch of Kolvenbach’s play and a consummate swath of acting by Guinan, with Stage’s dismayed Albert as interlocutor and dramatic catalyst.

Stammering, dodging and deflecting, Guinan’s pathetic shell of a man and father conjures every rationale to justify the new mess he has created, the bleak place into which he has now cast his son. But Leo the gambler sees a longshot that feels like a good bet. And Guinan makes the play in a golden moment of dramatic grace.


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