note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Sheila Barth
After seeing Speakeasy Theatre Company’s all-Irish production of Conor McPherson’s award-winning, popular play, “The Seafarer,” a spooky, folksy yarn set on Christmas Eve in the coastal Baldoyle suburb of Dublin, last November, I questioned whether an all-American cast and crew could create a production with the same authentically Celtic flair.
Merrimack Rep Artistic Director Charles Tower, who directed this production, brings his own touches and a fine, professional cast to “The Seafarer,” an ideal play to see during this Halloween-Christmas time of year.
Like any fine Irish tale that’s told well, “The Seafarer” has hard-drinking, beer-swigging men, full of swagger and testosterone, who’ve come together to play poker on a cold, dark, windy Christmas Eve. In one case, a player gambles for higher stakes than the others realize. The action is laced with supernatural overtones, black humor, and a scary meeting with a well-dressed, personified devil who has come to collect what’s due him from a 25-year-old debt.
The play, while dramatic and suspenseful, is also funny, heartwarming, and earthy, a tale of redemption with an uplifting lilt.
Internationally popular Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s newest play, “The Seafarer,” was initially performed in September 2006 at Cottesloe Auditorum of London’s Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, with McPherson directing. It won the Olivier Award nomination for Best Play and its star won the Olivier Award for Best Actor. It opened in May 2008 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where it also garnered accolades, then ran on Broadway in the Booth Theatre in 2007-8, taking several Tony Award nominations, and its success continues.
The story takes place in the grimy, gritty home of brothers James “Sharky” Harkin and his older brother, Richard, where the only decorative touches are a framed Guinness poster and a picture of Jesus, enhanced by a red receptacled light that continually malfunctions.
And, aye, it’s disgusting, they complain, the way they have to shoo away the many winos who congregate outside their door, swiggin’ pints and peeing on their back doorstep. Sharky, who has been a miscreant most of his life but is trying to get back on course by going off the sauce, sticking to tea and soft drinks, has returned home to care for his older brother, Richard, a former window cleaner, who recently became blind after reaching for something in a dumpster and hit his head. It hasn’t curtailed his drinking, though, nor his irascibility and manipulativeness. Veteran actor Gordon Joseph Weiss obviously relishes his role, portraying Richard with all his bluster to the hilt. David Adkins as Richard’s younger, more silent brother, Sharky, provides a perfect foil to Weiss, Jim Frangione as the brothers‘ myopic, married, good friend, Ivan Curry - who has his own tale to tell, we learn later- is also comically bittersweet, while Allyn Burrows as Sharky’s good-natured competitor for his former girlfriend Eileen’s affection also delivers a solid performance. The cast is rounded out by Mark Zeisler, a smooth actor, who brings potent insight to the strange, well-dressed and polished visitor, Mr. Lockhart.
The men’s story is engrossing. They interweave like a tightly-threaded tapestry, with some threads rougher, while still preserving a measure of humanity and brotherhood. The supernatural element that is inherently ingrained in Baldoyle’s local myths is icing on the cake.
Bill Clarke’s set design, Matthew E. Adelson’s provocative lighting, and Towers’ precise timing and direction, aided by dialect coach Julie Nelson for authenticity, are all effective.
Although “The Seafarer” has elements of sadness and doom, wrapped up in the gift of life and laughter, it’s a delightful holiday story.
“The Seafarer” captures our heart and souls during our brief voyeuristic visit with the Harkin brothers, their friends, and that gloomy stranger, whose unexpected soliloquy about his life is, indeed, a fiery lament.
Be aware that the language here is salty, but the acting and story are sublime.
Two-act, 2-1/4-hour play written by Conor McPherson, playing through November 8 at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets, $26-$56; senior, student, group rates available. Call 978-654-4678 or visit www.merrimackrep.org.