Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Night Alive
Main Stage West
Review by Jeanie K. Smith | Season Schedule

Also see Jeanie's reviews of Hand to God and The Great God Pan and Patrick's reviews of The Resting Place and Waitress

Anthony Abaté and John Craven
Photo by Ilana Niernberger
Irish playwright Conor McPherson, called "quite possibly the best playwright of his generation" and a "true poet" of the theatre, is noted for plays featuring believable, ordinary folk mired in difficult circumstances, working-class stiffs barely getting by and struggling with life's challenges, and plots infused with a pervasive malevolence. Yet his plays famously are also touched with the extraordinary—a radiant sense of something unnameable, something larger than ourselves that pulls towards redemption, reducing the struggles to bearable noise. His 2013 New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play The Night Alive has that luminous redemptive edge in spades, especially in the glowing, exceptional production currently gracing the stage in Sebastopol at Main Stage West.

Tommy (Anthony Abaté) is already in his fifties, but still hasn't managed to find his way, subsisting on random odd jobs and living in a room in his uncle Maurice's house. We see in the shabby room the detritus of a man's meager existence—scattered clothes, accumulated trash and newspapers, mismatched crude furnishings, a makeshift sink and tiny toilet room. At opening, Tommy has stepped out for fish and chips but returns with a young woman nursing a punched nose. Aimee (Ivy Rose Miller) insists the man who punched her was not her boyfriend, but Tommy is skeptical. He offers her tea and a place to sleep if she needs it, assuring her he's different and would never hit a woman.

Tommy's erstwhile odd-job partner Doc (Kevin Bordi) arrives and becomes upset over Aimee's possible interference in his dependence on Tommy—Doc sometimes sleeps on Tommy's spare cot when his sister's boyfriend kicks him out. He also claims to be disabled, and Tommy explains his mind is always five to ten minutes behind everyone else. An uneasy but genuine friendship begins to form for the trio, as they banter and jest, dancing to Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," bonding over shared survival strategies. Maurice (John Craven) shows up to inflict predictable landlord tyranny, revealing more about his relationship to Tommy, his departed wife, and his own struggles to connect to a purpose.

These are broken people, barely managing in a hostile world, guardedly seeking what few sparks of happiness and kindness they can eke out. The sudden appearance of Aimee's abusive boyfriend Kenneth (Sam Coughlin) wreaks havoc and violence, a physical manifestation of the razor's edge they already walk. The dark ending of act one bodes ill, but don't leave at intermission—the continuation of the plot in act two makes the whole journey into this bleak world worth it. McPherson imbues his characters with resilience, a dogged determination to do more than just survive, to dare to dream. Despite all odds and unhappy events, their will to live powerfully permeates their actions, as they reach for integrity and, yes, love. It's that luminosity, that hint of divinity, that ultimately elevates the play from the mundane and leaves us with a rare feeling of hope.

Director David Lear has found a cast that beautifully matches their roles, and has expertly guided them in creating remarkable, sincere characters. Abaté enlists our sympathies for Tommy straight away, even though we hear of his ex-wife's grievances and his less-than-legal schemes. His physicality and silences speak volumes, and draw us to this unlikely hero. Bordi keeps Doc utterly believable, never sinking into tricks or exaggerations for the gentle giant whose dreams could save the world. Miller is given scant information to work with, but deftly manages to flesh out Aimee's conflicted life. As the miserly Maurice, Craven plays the bitterness without making him nasty, and does a marvelous job with his transformation. Coughlin conveys pure, sinister evil with no shade of shame or hesitation in two terrific, spell-binding scenes.

Kudos to Lear as well for a fabulous one-room set that gives us so much information, and to Missy Weaver for haunting moonlight and ambience. Doug Faxon's sound design creates an audioscape of the play itself, heightening the tension and emotions. Elizabeth Craven masters a multitude of props and costumes ranging from slovenly to natty. It's a show where the production comes together as a gestalt, providing an excellent platform for the action.

This small theatre in Sebastopol is creating wonderful theatrical art, and McPherson's play is a gift that will stay with you, perhaps for a lifetime. Let it be a gift you give yourself this season.

The Night Alive, through October 28, 2018, at Main Stage West, 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol CA. Tickets $15.00-$30.00 can be purchased online at or by phone at 707-823-0177