Not everyone is happy at Christmas. In fact, we all know someone — or perhaps we are that someone — who descends into a dark, winter funk. The strain of family dynamics at holiday gatherings, the short days and long nights, and the pressure to be "merry" when there is a lot of suffering and hardship in the world can all take their toll.
It's enough to make you want to get good and drunk, which is what the characters do in Irish playwright Conor McPherson's 2006 play The Seafarer.
The play — which opens this weekend at Actors Guild of Lexington, where it's directed by Centre College drama professor Anthony Haigh — features five aging men who drink and play poker on Christmas Eve.
As with much of McPherson's work, things are not always what they seem.
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The play's protagonist, Sharky (Christopher Rose), who has just returned home to Dublin after losing a job, must take care of his blind, alcoholic brother Richard (Mark A. Smith). Tensions between the brothers are high, in part because Richard tries to foil Sharky's efforts to stay sober through the holidays.
The card game brings Sharky face to face with how difficult that is, but sobriety is not the only thing at stake for him.
Another player, Mr. Lockhart (Dave Dampier), a man whom Sharky met and played cards with 25 years earlier, is playing for much more than money or the thrill of winning. His poker mates do not know what is at stake in the card game, but the audience soon does, and the play functions on multiple levels.
The mystery of Mr. Lockhart is typical of the supernatural mystique and magical realism often present in McPherson's work and seen in AGL's recent second-stage production of St. Nicholas, a one-man show about a theater critic who gets involved with a coven of vampires.
AGL artistic director Eric Seale picked McPherson's work for December to offer something a little different and deeper than your usual holiday fare.
"I'm kind of playing both sides of the fence," Seale says. "The Seafarer is a show that involves Christmas at Christmastime, but it's not necessarily your everyday Christmas show. I think it's fun to give people something a little different at the holidays."
The combination of stark realism and elements of the mystical is much of its allure.
"Conor McPherson is one of the best playwrights alive," Seale says. "I love his work, and what's interesting to me is how he takes these very real places and very real characters in ordinary situations and mixes in some things that some people might consider unreal, some supernatural or paranormal events."
The show debuted in 2006 at the London National Theatre, where it won an Olivier award before opening on Broadway in 2007.
New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley declared its 2007 New York debut, directed by McPherson himself, "a dark and enthralling Christmas fable of despair and redemptions" while at the same time hailing it as "a thinking-person's alternative to It's a Wonderful Life as a flagon of Christmas cheer."