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Chicago by John Olson

Dublin Carol
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre

Also see John's review of Porgy and Bess

Dublin Carol
Stephen Louis Grush and
William Petersen

Though Christmas is not a time of cheer for all, for many it can at least be a time of hope. And while Conor McPherson's one-act play posits that hope is possible for its emotionally damaged fiftyish undertaker John, the playwright makes his audience work for the right to believe in John's redemption. While Dublin Carol is inspired by Dickens's A Christmas Carol and the author shamelessly names its characters John, Mark, Mary and (the offstage) Noel, there is nothing else easy or sentimental about this uncompromising play.

John's an active alcoholic, though he claims to now drink much less than he had in the past. He's been alienated from his family and his God for some time (he tells Mark he doesn't go to church, though it seems as he does, given all the funerals he works). He seems to recognize his failings and the devastation of his disease, yet continues to rely on the bottle to dull his pain. The play's Christmas Eve Day action begins after John (William Petersen) and his 20-year-old assistant Mark (Stephen Louis Grush) return from a funeral. Their conversation at the funeral home office begins pleasantly enough, but by five p.m. John will have been visited in his office and in his memory by various ghosts and demons from his past. They remind him of his abandonment of family and the others who needed his support. Further, it's revealed he's in danger of losing his lifeline—the never-seen Noel, who as the owner of the funeral home gave John employment and enabled him to function responsibly in society, and is seriously ill and hospitalized.

John's history and confrontation with ghosts past, present and future is revealed gradually through the play's ninety minutes that represent just a few hours in the man's life. William Petersen, mastering an Irish brogue, is amazingly understated as he displays John's pain, vulnerability and mixture of self-awareness and denial in equal measure. Much of the dialogue is given to John's long speeches and Dublin Carol is a rare opportunity to savor the talents of one of the products of Chicago's off-loop theater scene to make it big in films and TV. More than that, though, Petersen's performance is important for its ability to connect us with an altogether believable, sad and touching character.

Grush is terrific as assistant Mark, a working class youth who still has significant life choices before him. McPherson gives us few clues as to whether or not they will be wise ones and makes a case that Mark could easily turn out as emotionally disconnected as John. Though Mark is reticent in his conversations with John, Grush nonetheless communicates Mark's insecurity, hopes and fears. The cast is completed by Nicole Wiesner as John's daughter Mary, who's both furiously angry and disappointed in her father but unable to give up on him entirely. Amy Morton directs the trio in a carefully paced and realistic style that is achingly believable. Equally believable is the set by Kevin Depinet, which sets the action in Noel's funeral home office—adorned with much Roman Catholic memorabilia and an effectively sparse sprinkling of Christmas decorations.

The funeral home office, with its earth colors, fireplace and church symbols, seems a comforting retreat. Still, it does not offer a complete escape. The nature of the business conducted there is a continual reminder of the transitory nature of life and the existence of an ultimate, though unknown, deadline for making one's peace with it. For John, it's a room in which he is forced to confront his painful past but also given reason to hope he can be redeemed for it while still alive. The price of such hope is the courage to change, and the journey of this densely packed ninety-minute play is John's attempt to learn if he possesses that courage.

Dublin Carol will be performed Wednesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 3:00 p.m. through January 4, 2009. There will be an added performance on Sunday, December 28 at 3:00 p.m. There will be no performances on the following dates: Thursday, November 27, Wednesday, December 24, Thursday, December 25 or Thursday, January 1. Tickets available online at www.steppenwolf.org, by phone at 312-335-1650, or at the box office at 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.


Photo: Michael Brosilow


-- John Olson



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