Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Sister Act
As we take our seats, we gaze into a one-room home in total dishevelment (director Sass serves double duty as set designer). Laundry is strewn everywhere, rumpled blankets piled on a bed and a cot placed randomly in the room; dishes are stacked on a folding table that serves as the make-shift kitchen; a card table, a chair, and two unmatched stools form a dining area. A large bay window with double glass doors opening to a garden (which we cannot see) and an elegant vaulted ceiling indicate this space was meant to be a parlor within a proper home, robbed of its intended purpose and fallen into a deep state of barely-getting-by. Travel posters from Finland are a clue that the inhabitant of this room imagines better, cleaner places. A poster of Steve McQueen in The Great Escape hints that he may fancy himself a hero, ready to seize a way out.
That inhabitant is middle-aged Tommy, who has set up camp in this room within the home of his widowed Uncle Maurice. Tommy has been here for two years, since parting with his wife and daughter. It is clear that he did not provide much of a life for his family, and phone calls from his ex-wife point to his neglected duties as a father. Tommy has the careless rumpled dress and shaggy hair of a juvenile, which are well suited to his misguided sheen of optimism. He gets by doing odd jobs using the van he somehow manages to hang on to, with the help of his long-time buddy Doc.
Perhaps it is spending so much time with Doc that gives Tommy a sense of competence, for Doc is even less tethered to life than Tommy. He alternately spends the night on Tommy's cot or at his sister's place, when her boyfriend allows it. He looks up to Tommy as the leader of their enterpriseit is, after all, Tommy's vanbut Doc has an active dream life, which he records on scraps of paper, in which he ponders such mysteries as the nature of time and the substance of black holes.
Into this fragile existence, Tommy brings Aimee, a much younger woman whom he rescues from being beaten by her ex-boyfriend. He helps Aimee clean upnot an easy task in the squalor of his digsand invites her to stay the night, a chaste invitation: her on the cot, him on the couch in Uncle Maurice's sitting room. We know little about Aimee. Is she a prostitute, a drug user, a runaway? In any case, Tommy is energized by the opportunity to take care of someone, albeit in a most marginal manner.
Aimee's presence impacts Maurice, who is scornful of the decay his nephew has brought into his home, and on Doc, unaccustomed to someone ahead of him in line for Tommy's attention. Into the fray comes Kenneth, Aimee's violent ex-boyfriend. The menace he brings threatens Aimee, Tommy, and Doc. The remainder of the play reveals how this unfolds for Tommy, and his mental leaps into alternate lives, until he lands upon what seems to be solid ground. For now.
While there is not a great deal of plot in The Night Alive, there is a tremendous amount of mood and atmosphere and mystery. Maurice and his late wife raised Tommy. Heartbroken by Tommy's failures and the emptiness of his own life, he takes refuge from grief and anger in the bottle. The deep affection between Tommy and Doc is a marvel: how does the bond between these two men fill needs that could not otherwise be met? There is no hint of homo-eroticism here, but a chaste love between true friends; it is wonderful but it is not enough.
Aimee brings an erotic charge to Tommy's life. The total lack of contextwhere she came from, how she lives, what she is seekingmakes her all the more appealing to Tommy, as it frees him to project upon her his own longings. When Tommy declares his love for Aimee, it is abundantly clear that he knows nothing about what that means, yet he is willing to change his whole life based on that idea. In the end we are left as well, to wonder what, if anything, these two may have for one another.
With so much of The Night Alive dependent on the inner lives of the characters, much credit goes to the flawless cast Sass has assembled. Stephen Yoakam brings to life the very soul of Tommy, this hopeful boy in a beaten-down, middle-aged body. We see his flaws, his delusions, his deceptions, and yet there is a core of virtue alive within his heart that causes us to ache for him. We sense the sincerity in his intent to be a much better person than he has been or ever will be. Patrick Bailey, as Doc, is equally marvelous. Aware of his own precarious existence, his Doc has built a house of cards in which to seek shelter, carrying on as if the cards are impermeable to the slightest change in the wind. His self-effacing manner, his hang-dog affection for his mate Tommy, his clumsy efforts to look after his own welfare, make for one of the most heartfelt portrayals I have seen on any Twin Cities stage.
Martin Ruben presents Maurice as stern and humorless, but in small doses reveals the wounds he has suffered and allows us to sympathize with him as well. Tyson Forbes is a menacing Kenneth, skillfully inflicting fear by his choice of words or phrasing. As Aimee, Sara Richardson remains a cypher throughout the play, which is how her character is written. We know little about her, other than her survival instinct. Richardson elicits enough heat to make Aimee a believable object of Tommy's desire, yet never reveals her own desires. She remains a sphinx to the end when we are left to wonder what her next move will be.
As director, Joel Sass is able to bring light to each detail, assuring that every word and gesture makes its mark before the next arrives. It is a knitting together of varied yarns, without a dropped stitch or loose strand in the piece. I have already described Sass's spot-perfect set design. All other tech credits are top notch, bringing authenticity to the look and sound of this room and those who pass through it.
The Night Alive is a terrific play for those who enjoy travel in dark and unchartered corners of the human heart. It is not, perhaps, a play to be enjoyed by those who seek a neat narrative and relish closure. Too much remains unfinished and uncertain. But if the mystery of uncertainty appeals to you, you won't find a finer showcase for it than this production of The Night Alive.
The Night Alive continues at the Jungle Theater through December 20, 2015. 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN, 55408. Tickets are $28.00 - $48.00. For tickets call 612- 822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com. For group sales call 612-278-0147.
Written by Conor McPherson; Director and Set Designer: Joel Sass; Costume Designer: Andrea M. Gross; Lighting Designer: Barry Browning; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Wig Designer: Andrea Moriarity; Stage Manager: John Novak.
Cast: Patrick Bailey (Doc), Tyson Forbes (Kenneth), Sara Richardson (Aimee), Martin Ruben (Maurice), Stephen Yoakam (Tommy)