The world seems to be rampant with disappointments, disasters, and persistent obstacles. Conflict drives drama, but does real life have to be so hard so often? Sometimes, theatre can provide answers, comfort the life-weary, or entertain so thoroughly that you forget your problems. The Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's production of The Seafarer does all three.
Debuting in 2006 at London's Royal National Theatre, this work by Irish playwright Conor McPherson earned four Tony Award nominations with one win, plus two noms from the Olivier Awards (the U.K.'s Tonys) with one win. It's been described as a black comedy, which I'd dispute – you can't slap a label onto this one. What made me want to see this play was not a genre descriptor, but the New York Times' Ben Brantley's observation: "The Seafarer may just be the pick-me-up play of the season." I attended Thursday's opening night, a gamble based on that blurb, and won an extraordinary theatre experience even better than I'd expected thanks to director Justin Raver and his skilled cast, crew, and staff.
In a little house near Dublin, on a Christmas Eve, we have a coterie of prone-to-violence alcoholics – guys grousing, drinking, not drinking, wanting to drink, sneaking drinks, and berating others' choices as to whether and what to drink. The Seafarer, though, isn't really about liquor, but rather relationships, duty, and trying to get by. Caregiving is not for the faint of heart, and when one's charge is a family member, it adds complexity to this already-demanding vocation.
James “Sharky” Harkin, played by the physically imposing Matthew McConville, is resigned, determined, yet sizzling with resentment as he enters his brother Richard's house. Easy to understand once we realize that Richard is not just in a mood, he is a mood – and I'd feel the same way, were I in his slippers. The blind, querulous Richard is hard to like, but his impeccable portrayer Gary Talsky made it impossible for me not to. Despite his situation, Richard tries to be cheery and look forward to simple (and pitiful) Christmas revels. I also commend Talsky for both his convincing manifestation of Richard's disability and skill in not injuring himself or others while doing so.
Patrick Kelley plays Richard's friend and occasional caretaker, Ivan, as a slightly befuddled yet fundamentally genial man. I'm unsure whether the character's bewilderment is inherent or due to his inebriation – but as he's never sober, it's a moot point. Kelley is genuine and very appealing in the role – the kind of friend I'd want helping me. It turns out that Richard, to Sharky's fury, has invited a family acquaintance to drop by and play poker that night, and Bobby Metcalf's Nicky comes off as a (comparatively) well-to-do nerd trying to be cool. This fresh-faced lad's entrance is itself a comedic moment, as Sharky has painted Nicky as an utter villain, having both moved in with his ex and driven his car around town. (To be fair, I'd be furious at either transgression, too, never mind both, and wouldn't want to spend a holiday with this wanker.)
When he arrives, Nicky brings his new acquaintance, Mr. Lockhart, to join the game. (Unsurprisingly, they met at a pub.) Bruce Carmen's Lockhart is even more well-off than Nicky: articulate, polite, jovial with a touch of smug – not really the sort to grace a working-class cottage. Carmen plays Lockhart's slow emotional transitions, as well as his sudden mood swings, with marvelous style. But then, each Seafarer actor has exceptional moments. At one point, McConville simply stares in shock, fear, and indecision while the others natter on. He doesn't move, but I couldn't look away. Raver's actors are a tight, cohesive ensemble, as well. As diction, inflections, and accents are particular interests of mine, I must say that the brogues here are near perfection, with only one character not quite as Irish-sounding as the others.
The Seafarer's uncredited set designer expresses Richard's home in Richmond Hill's traditional theatre-in-the-round manner as a living room on the central stage, with furniture and set dressing in each of the four corners, which also represent exits to other rooms and the outdoors. In truth, the decor is a touch too neat and refined for the Harkin brothers; here, the disarray in their lives is echoed by the acting, not the surroundings. I did especially admire a long, rough-looking stairway up to the front door that underscores the characters' emotional and physical difficulties in leaving, as well as in letting others in. Additionally, some moments are enhanced by lighting changes courtesy of designer Jennifer Kingry, aided with sound cues by Kingry and Larry Lord.
I've seen three of The Seafarer's on-stage gents in other shows, and after enjoying them together in Raver's demanding production, I expect more fine performances from each. Truly: Make it a point to see this show. Though set at Yuletide, it's an excellent way to celebrate the spooky season, as well as a compelling drama with laughs, unexpected edge-of-the-seat moments, and one morbidly fascinating monologue that is utterly chilling. You can't fit that in a theatrical publisher's catalog.
The Seafarer runs at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (600 Robinson Drive, Geneseo IL) through October 15, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)944-2244 and visiting RHPlayers.com.