As the story opens, a tour guide named Drumm enters, describing for the audience the little village outside of Dublin where he has spent his whole life. It is to be a time-travel play--bouncing easily between Drumm's youth and his sorry old age. He has come to the point at which he wants to face the facts of his life, however painful, since he must soon face death.
Scenes from Drumm's youth reveal his love for his school classmate, Mary, and his jealousy and rivalry with Lar, a lunkhead with a heart of gold who also loves Mary. We learn, too, of the abuse Drumm suffered as a child at the hands of his schoolmaster father, who bent the poor kid over backward just to prove he had no favorites. The schoolmaster, we learn, later killed himself without a kind word to young Drumm, scarring him more than all the beatings put together. So Drumm clings to Mary and to an elusive superiority born of intellectual achievements.
But for all his academic success, Drumm ends up in the civil service and virtually gives Mary away to Lar in a fit of pique. He regrets both decisions the rest of his life, failing to see that the woman he does marry, Dolly, is really more suited to him than the woman he continues to pine for. But Mary is wiser than either her husband or her former suitor, and in her old age, she's as feisty and honest as she was in her youth. Only she has the wit and the insight to stand up to Drumm, who tends to express his displeasure by refusing to talk to people. Mary tells him at one point he won't be in heaven ten minutes before he'll be refusing to talk to God.
As obnoxious as Drumm is, he's capable of facing the truth about his life--in fact, he's desperate to face it. Drumm's willingness to confront his personal failings may be a sign of optimism on playwright Leonard's part, but something about it does ring true. And much of that truth comes from actor Arthur Payton's brisk, astute performance. Payton confers a restive, angry, brooding intelligence on his character that seems to grow right out of death's awful imminence. The tender underside of Drumm's love also peeks through the crusty exterior often enough to create a fully realized human being.
Kay Casperson, meanwhile, is the heart and soul of this production as the elder Mary. She is so smart, so focused and so warm that she brings the whole story to life. Saralu Diller and Otto Rieth as the aged Dolly and Lar give sensitive performances as well. And the actors portraying the younger versions of the old folks bring vitality to their roles, though it's a little hard to see the connections between old and young, except in the case of Arthur Payton and El Armstrong as the younger Drumm.
Leonard is not a profound thinker, and the wisdom he offers in A Life is rather commonplace. But he does make us care about his characters, which is why we're glad in the end when he has mercy on the bitter old Drumm and allows him to see himself as he is--and to face his death with some degree of equanimity.