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Chicago by John Olson

The Seafarer
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Also see Richard's review of The Brothers Karamazov

The Seafarer
John Mahoney, Alan Wilder, Francis Guinan, Randall Newsome and Tom Irwin
Steppenwolf has often rightly been called courageous, and never more deservedly than this holiday season. At a time of year when so many non-profits trot out their perennial Dickens Christmas Carol or some version of It's a Wonderful Life, this company has the guts to give us not one, but two dark and challenging Christmastime meditations by Irish playwright Conor McPherson. While his Dublin Carol plays upstairs at Steppenwolf, McPherson's recent London and Broadway hit The Seafarer is the attraction downstairs. Though the two plays are equally uncompromising studies of middle-aged alcoholic men facing what is likely their last-chance for redemption, The Seafarer goes down easier with its ample shots of humor.

Like Dublin Carol's John Plunkett, The Seafarer's Sharkey Harkin (Francis Guinan) is reviewing his life and his regrets on a Christmas Eve in Dublin. Apparently never very successful in either work or romance, he's recently lost both his job and his lover, who happened to be his employer's wife. And, though he's as sad as Plunkett—perhaps even more so—his misery is alleviated for the audience by the comically un-self awareness of his crotchety, recently blinded and even more alcoholic older brother Richard (John Mahoney). Richard doesn't see the irony in his disdain for the "winos" that loiter in the back alley of his north Dublin home or begin to show the least shame in the needy and manipulative way he capitalizes on his new infirmity. Richard seems to lack the sort of remorse for past misdeeds and sense of failure that haunt Sharkey, but perhaps Richard is just too self-absorbed for such thoughts. Richard's blindness keeps him from seeing the broken man his brother has become and nothing prevents him from mercilessly teasing Sharkey over his shortcomings. Richard's unyielding sense of good cheer—as wicked as it frequently is—keeps the audience from getting stuck in the mire of the brothers' decaying lives. Comic relief is further provided by their friend Ivan (Alan Wilder), who is more cognizant of the problems caused by his alcoholism but seems to have accepted them. In any event, he still has his wife, however turbulent his marriage may be, and has not yet sunk to the level of despair facing Sharkey. Neither has Nicky (Randall Newsome), Sharkey's goofy rival with whom Sharkey's ex-lover Eileen has taken up.

What initially seems to be a rather conventional and realistic comedy-drama, becomes fantastical when McPherson suggests that for the Devil, Christmas is not a day off, but in fact one of his biggest work days of the year. In the body of an acquaintance Nicky has just made at a neighborhood pub, the Devil (called Mr. Lockhart) is invited to Richard and Sharkey's home for a game of cards. The pot, as is revealed only to Sharkey, will include Sharkey's soul. Tom Irwin's Mr. Lockhart is suitably dangerous, otherworldly and at the same time human enough to allow us to believe he could fool the men into thinking he's simply an affable and mortal stranger invited to a friendly game of cards. It's an electric performance, with his menace perfectly balanced by the earthiness and comic timing of Mahoney, Wilder and Newsome and the unspoken yet clearly evident anguish of Guinan's Sharkey.

Director Randall Arney finds an approach that perfectly blends realism and fantasy, set against a detailed setting of Richard's squalid little cottage designed by Takeshi Kata.

Richard frequently cries out that he has little to live for, but he takes joy in what he has left. Though he's lost his sight and most of his mobility, he delights in walks outside, trips to the pub, enjoying his friends and a good game of cards. That's more joy than his brother or Dublin Carol's John Plunkett are able to find, and McPherson suggests in The Seafarer that it may be reason enough for living. It's a sentiment that might seem as sugary as an angel earning its wings if McPherson didn't take us through a world of filth, hopelessness and perhaps the most terrifying description of Hell before we get to that conclusion and earn the right to believe it.

The Seafarer will be performed at Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, through February 8, 2009. Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Sunday evening performances through January 11 only. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m. Wednesday matinees on January 14, 21, 28 and February 4 at 2:00 p.m. There is no 7:30 p.m. performance on December 7. There are no performances on December 24 (Christmas Eve), December 25 (Christmas Day) and January 1, 2009 (New Years Day). Tickets are available through the box office, online at www.steppenwolf.org or by phone at 312-335-1650. Ticket prices $20-$70. Twenty $20 tickets are available at Audience Services beginning at 11:00 a.m. on the day of each performance (1:00 p.m. for Sunday performances). Half-price rush tickets are available one hour before each show. Student discounts available.


Photo Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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