The holidays can be hell for some people, literally, as they grapple with the sins of the past. And there’s usually a price to pay, especially when the past comes a-callin’ in the form of the Devil himself. That’s not exactly the Christmas celebration the characters in Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer” have in mind amid their near constant drunkenness and non-stop insults.
Richard Harkin is the demanding family patriarch, blind and reliant on younger brother James, known as “Sharky.” Richard’s darkness extends beyond his inability to see; he’s incapable of feeling beyond his own needs as he berates and degrades his younger brother, who harbors his own secrets. Add in so-called friends Ivan and Nick, and this ill-mannered group in an unkempt house outside Dublin would make for a hellish way to celebrate anything. But it makes for a perfect setting for the mysterious and cunning Mr. Lockhart.
As in McPherson’s 1997 play, “The Weir,” which the Rep staged in 2000, a quartet of men takes center stage, their tongues increasingly loosened by drink amid the company of an outsider. But this time the stakes are incredibly high. In a game of poker, Sharky plays for his soul against the Devil, given the deal he made years ago with the Unholy One. And the Devil is calling in his chips—on Christmas Eve, no less.
Director Ben Barnes, the former artistic director of the Abbey Theater (Ireland’s national theater) draws upon his mastery of working-class Irishness in all its eccentricities. Under his seamless direction, the actors embody a range of characters and emotions that charge the play with dramatic realism, both humorous and serious. In some of his finest work ever on the Rep stage, James Pickering’s blind brother Richard is a sight to behold, deftly moving between his drunken curmudgeon/faithful friend personas, while bumping into furniture.
As Sharky, Lee Ernst is carefully nuanced, creating a building tension amid the drunken haze. And as the Devil, Jonathan Smoots plays it just right, part unsure man, part inhuman creature, keeping us guessing as to who’s really going to win at this all-too-important game of cards. Christopher Tarjan and Jonathan Gillard Daly turn in fine performances as the drunken messes of “friends” that further sully and soil this household.
In “The Seafarer,” hell becomes a place of one’s own making, numbed by drunkenness, fueled by self-doubt, afraid of the light of truth, always waiting, silently watching in the darkness.
“The Seafarer” runs through March 7 in The Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater located in the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex. For more information, call 414-224-9490 or visit www.milwaukeerep.com.