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Playwright Conor McPherson has a knack for bringing the Irish out in everything he does; his plays carry two distinctly Irish traits. First, they portray the common man of Ireland as he scratches his existence out on that tiny isle; second, they add that touch of the malevolent unknown that is the trademark of the Irish tale. The inhabitants of a McPherson play live in a world where there is more afoot, let us say, than is dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy.
Last Thursday night, Burning Coal Theater Company opened the latest in a grand string of plays by the Irish storyteller. This one, The Seafarer, has little to do with anything nautical; it has more to do with living out the treacherous life of a sailor adrift on a changing sea, and using one’s wits and experience to be able to reach the peace and calm of a friendly port. Playwright McPherson knows full well that even the best sailor cannot make that trip alone. Without his mates, without his friends, he is alone against the elements. And as any sailor can tell you, the elements are fickle forces, indeed.
When the play begins, it is Christmas Eve in Dublin, at the household of Richard (Peter Haig) and his younger brother Sharky (Holden Hansen), who has come home to look after his elder sibling because Dick, as his friends call him, has gone blind. It is only a recent development; Richard, despite his newly acquired predicament, still intends to enjoy his holiday with his best buddies, Nicky (Stephen LeTrent) and Ivan (David Dossey). He has assembled Ivan and Sharky to venture out into town to gather the “holiday cheer” they will need for their annual Christmas Eve poker party.
McPherson is at his best setting his characters up as Irish Everymen. Richard is an irascible old coot, who seems to bully everyone while everyone loves him for it. No one, it seems, takes him seriously. His best friend, Ivan, is sweet and charitable and even a bit fawning; heaven only knows he lives with a hellion for a wife. This makes his very presence at Richard’s a difficult thing. The Mrs. is incapable of knowing how much it means to him to be with his mates on Christmas Eve. Sharky’s presence is dual-edged; he is here to care for his brother but is also grateful for the roof over his head. Work for Sharky is scarce and infrequent; it seems he cannot keep a job for very long at a time. His brother puts it down to his inability to hold his liquor.
Nicky, the youngest member of this little club, complicates the issue for a number of reasons. He has not only taken up with Sharky’s ex; he is now working in her shop, and driving the same car that used to be Sharky’s. This is just about more than poor Sharky can bear; and his temper is holding, but only barely. But Nicky, in his own ignorance, throws the cat amongst the pigeons when he brings along with him the requisite fifth card player: a new acquaintance he met down at the pub, a rather well-to-do gent by the name of Lockhart (Randolph Curtis Rand).
This cast is exceptionally well-meshed in characterization. While we see the traits of each individually, it is the group as a whole we come to care about. David Dossey as Ivan is a sweet, jolly old fellah you cannot help but like, despite the fact that he is a poor, henpecked old soul who cannot even find his glasses without aid. Peter Haig as Richard is a man struggling to cope with his blindness the same way he has coped with everything in this low-income life — by railing at it and waving that stick of his. Indomitable to the last, he will go down fighting as long as he has his mates with him. He ventures out into the street to do battle with gangs of scalawags and returns victorious both times. And poor Nicky; the man can’t handle booze at all and can barely hold on to a simple bottle of beer. And Ilene, Sharky’s ex, is a handful that is more than a match for poor Nicky, despite the raise in stature that his new position has gained him. She’s got him under her thumb and no bones about it.
But this “gentleman” by the name of Lockhart; who the devil is he? He knows Nicky; he’s shared more than one glass in a number of Nicky’s watering holes. He seems, in fact, to know all the pubs in Dublin. He scares up an old tale that rattles Ivan’s cage quite a bit, despite the fact that Ivan was “completely cleared of that.” But Lockhart’s arrival is not at all circumstance — indeed not. He has been prowling the local pubs all day long this Christmas Eve in search of Sharky. It is only the fact that Sharky has gone off the booze entirely that has kept Lockhart from finding him. And now that he has….
This is quintessential McPherson; we are left to wonder if, no, it can’t be, but — what if this rascal really is the Devil? We are skeptical, but you can see it in Sharky’s face; this man may not have cloven hooves, but he is Sharky’s own personal devil, and that’s a fact. And he has come to collect on a bargain that Sharky made with him 25 years ago this very night.
This is a craftily constructed, suspenseful drama that keeps us literally on the edge of our chairs. It is clear that a loss at cards by Sharky to this old nemesis will be disastrous. Only Providence — and we never know about Providence where McPherson is concerned — can save Sharky from a messy end.
You’ll get not another word of it from me. What you will get is a terrifically cast and well-thought-out presentation that will make you laugh out loud and spellbind you simultaneously. Played out on a set scooped out of the slums of Dublin, in a beautifully executed design by Robert Andrusco, Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis weaves five wickedly diverse characters into a superb evening of entertainment — especially if entertainment means getting the pants scared off you! Delicious evil in a battle of wits with four poor Irish blokes and a dash of Providence! You’ll not get a better evening’s entertainment this side of the pond.
Burning Coal Theater Company’s production of The Seafarer will run Thursday-Sunday through February 21 at the Meymandi Theatre at the Murphey School. See our theatre calendar for details.