At a time full of challenges we have yet to meet and questions we have yet to answer, the holidays have the potential to be a bit of a double-edged sword. Our problems are real and in front of us, and hope seems both ephemeral and in short supply.
It’s exactly because of this that I am so thankful for Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” playing at George Street Playhouse through Sunday, December 14. It’s a soul-satisfying gem of a modern Christmas tale that finds magic, humor, and love in a world full of grit and evil’s temptations. Director Anders Cato’s intimate and honest production is a triumph.
We find ourselves in the basement of the Harkin house in Baldoyle, Ireland, on Christmas Eve, where James “Sharky” Harkin (David Adkins) has returned home to care for his brother, Richard (David Schramm), a a blustery force of nature despite being newly blinded from an incident on Halloween. And Sharky is newly sober, trying for all his might to bull through the holidays without a drink. It’s clear from the start that these two siblings are trapped with one another, both by their dingy surroundings (a wonderfully dank and grimy set design by R. Michael Miller) and by decades of misgivings, anger, and things left unsaid. Their relationship is stormy at best, but actors Adkins and Schramm deftly layer their characters’ genuine concern and care for one another on top of frustration and explosive rage. It’s surprising, it’s heartbreaking, and it is absolutely an accurate picture of the minute-to-minute dynamics of family we all face around this time of year.
Sharky and Richard are joined in their bittersweet revelry by their friend, Ivan (William Hill), who scrapes himself off the floor following a drunken bender (as you might have guessed, booze plays a huge part in this thoroughly Irish tale) — who’s drinking, who’s not drinking, who’s tipsy, who’s drunk, who needs more alcohol, and where the alcohol is hidden are constant questions as the story unfolds. Ivan injects tremendous mirth into the evening, as he carefully balances the bemused smirk of a faithful friend against the palpable sting of his own regrets.
The interplay between Richard, Sharky, and Ivan is probably entertaining enough to sustain an evening, but the play transforms altogether with the arrival of two further visitors: Richard’s friend and Sharky’s adversary, Nicky (Matthew Boston) and the mysterious, coiffed, and elegant Mr. Lockhart (Robert Cuccioli). As the men prepare for a friendly game of poker on Christmas Eve, the stakes are raised to a biblical level; the murky and shameful details of Sharky’s past and present reveal themselves, and he is locked in a frenzied struggle for his very soul.
Here is where the story reveals its supernatural underpinnings. I’m going to tread carefully from here on out, as I refuse to spoil some of the wondrous twists and discoveries in this play. It’s almost impossible to describe “The Seafarer” without referencing “It’s a Wonderful Life,” (one review of the original New York production called it “the thinking man’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’”) but I’m going to posit that playwright McPherson riffs on and actually improves upon it: the stakes are higher, the relationships are tighter, and the feelings of hopelessness are so well-drawn and complete that they almost swallow us whole — until the spirit of the season, and the devotion and faith of familial love and yes, even a miracle, bring us back from the brink.
The performances are spectacular, with two standouts amongst an outstanding cast. Robert Cuccioli (last seen on a New Jersey stage as an excellent Salieri in the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey’s “Amadeus”) is masterful as Mr. Lockhart. Cuccioli’s brogue, halfway between a growl and a chuckle, is the perfect testament to temptation. The problem with evil, after all, is that it is unexpectedly alluring and even likable. The unexpected warmth and mournful sense of loss Cuccioli brings to Lockhart earns the devil his sympathies.
This is Sharky’s story, however, and David Adkins’ performance is revelatory. With an agile, hangdog face and eyes that draw you right into his soul, we’re left with a sense that we know Sharky; his fight is ours, and we so desperately want him to win.
“The Seafarer” is one of those plays that has duly earned its moniker of “modern classic;” its New York run last season had everyone talking. The intimacy and openness of George Street’s space create an even stronger connection between the play and audience. Joe Saint’s lighting design is well-suited to the shifts of power and emotion in the play, and Christopher J. Bailey’s sound design is excellent in its tasteful and subtle spookiness.
McPherson’s inspiration for the play came from the Old English poem of the same name, an ode to the power of faith when night is darkest and we seem abandoned by all that’s good in the world. And that’s the miracle of “The Seafarer”: when the world has wounded us beyond repair, when our mistakes seem insurmountable, when we’ve bargained away the things that seem to matter most, love can save us. Our loved ones may be loud, or slovenly, or weird, or flawed in any number of other ways, but our faith in them — and theirs in us — is our lifeline to tomorrow. McPherson’s message hits home in this beautifully rendered and mythic story.
"The Seafarer," through Sunday, December 14, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $28 to $66. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.