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Theater Fri Dec 06 2013

The Seafarer at Seanachai Theatre: A mystical drunken Christmas

Oh, those Irish playwrights. What is it about that damp Irish air that brings such theatrical genius? Twenty-first century playwrights like Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson and Brian Friel are heirs to the standards set by their progenitors -- writers like Sean O'Casey, W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and J.M. Synge.

Photo by Joe Mazza.

Seanachai Theatre Company, our local Irish theater, brings us Conor McPherson's Irish Christmas story with a Faustian twist. The script provides humor, despair and ultimately redemption. The play is set in a shabby, rundown house in Baldoyle, a coastal town near Dublin. The living room set is cluttered with bottles, overflowing ashtrays and general mess.

Seanachai's The Seafarer, directed by Matt Miller, is an excellent production, finely acted and directed. It's a worthy successor to -- and perhaps even better than -- the 2008-09 Steppenwolf production of the same play. Brad Armacost is outstanding as Richard, the older brother, now blind because he fell into a dumpster on Halloween.

His younger brother Sharky (Dan Waller, as taut as a wire) has been away to work in another part of the country and now has come home. He's committed to stop drinking and has been dry for two days. He's caring for his brother, taking care of meals and housekeeping, helping Richard to dress and get up and down the steep stairway.

The play opens on Christmas Eve morning as Sharky opens the curtains to let in the sunlight on the squalid living room. He tries to clean up and prepare breakfast for Richard (who spent the night sleeping behind the sofa) and their friend Ivan (Ira Amyx), who meant to go home to his wife last night and has lost his glasses. The two find a bottle of whiskey and manage to pour some into their breakfast tea cups while Sharky is out of the room.

Their task for the day is to get ready for an evening of drinking, cardplaying and celebration. The shopping list for Christmas eve is four six-packs of Harp's, three bottles of Powers whiskey, some Miller's, and maybe a chicken or turkey. After they return from the store, visitors arrive. It's Nicky Giblin (Shane Kenyon), who now lives with Sharky's ex, Eileen, and the mysterious visitor Mr. Lockhart (Kevin Theis). The two have already been carousing around the pubs in town and are ready for a card game.

The mysterious Mr. Lockhart is well dressed in suit and tie, unlike Ivan and the brothers. Nicky is natty, however, in gold chain and leather jacket.

As the drinking continues, Mr. Lockhart alludes to his intention to collect on an old debt. He seems to know a lot about Sharky and Ivan. He knows Ivan was involved in an arson case. He knows Sharky was working as a driver for a couple in Lahinch and might have become too close to the wife.

Sharky, looking perplexed, says to Lockhart, "Who are you again?" Lockhart replies, "You know who I am. I want your soul, Sharky." He reminds Sharky that they met in Bridewell, where they were locked up in a cell together 20 years ago and played a card game that left Sharky owing a debt. Lockhart says he helped Sharky get out of the sentence he was facing for a barroom brawl in which Sharky killed a man. Their agreement was that the debt would be repaid in the next card game. If Lockhart wins, Sharky must repay the debt by going with Lockhart "through the old hole in the wall."

The drinking continues in act two, with the addition of a bottle of poteen. A tense card game is in progress. Tense, at least, for Sharky, as Richard and Ivan, playing together because of Richard's blindness, win some large pots in the poker game. I'll avoid spoilers by not telling you how the conclusion arrives, but Sharky avoids Mr. Lockhart's clutches and the play ends with Richard, Ivan and Sharky heading to Christmas mass. As Mr. Lockhart departs, he says, "Perhaps we'll play again some time, when my luck changes. Or yours does." Sharky replies that he doesn't want to play any more, and Lockhart remarks as he leaves that "someone up there likes you, Sharky. You've got it all." Then he says, "I'll be gone until Good Friday anyway."

At one point, Mr. Lockhart says to Sharky, "I'm the sun in the morning. I'm the snake in the garden. And I've come for your soul." Sharky's debt is a variation on the Faust legend in literature and it brings out the Christian/religious underpinning of the play, confirmed by Lockhart's promise to return on Good Friday.

The play's title is not explained but it's considered a reference to an anonymous medieval poem, The Seafarer, in which the old sailor describes the difficulties of life on the wintry sea. Later in the poem, he talks about heaven as a goal for man to reach by living a good life. Vision or sight is also a recurring theme in the play. Richard's blindness and Ivan without his glasses suggest the characters' lack of clarity on how to live the good life.

The Seafarer is an excellent black comedy thriller, with fine acting by all five cast members. It's not your typical holiday play, but it's highly rewarding as a character study. Director Miller maintains perfect timing with his cast throughout the two-hour performance. The set design by Joe Schermoly is greatly enhanced by Julian Pike's lighting. Dialect coach Elise Kauzlaric has done an excellent job as the actors manage the Irish tongue convincingly.

Seanachai Theatre Company presents The Seafarer through Jan. 5 at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Performances are at 7:30pm Thursday-Saturday and at 3pm Sunday. Tickets are $26-30 and can be purchased online or by calling 866-811-4111.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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