New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley declared Irish playwright Conor McPherson's play The Seafarer "the thinking person's alternative to It's a Wonderful Life" and Actors Guild of Lexington's opening-night production of the dark, redemptive play proves why Brantley's description is an apt metaphor.
The protagonist in Frank Capra's film lives in a black-and-white world and it is clear that George Bailey is not just a "good" person, but about as square as they come. His big crisis comes from the frustration and futility of fighting an obvious bad guy before an angel-in-training restores his will to live.
By contrast, McPherson's protagonist, Sharky, is the kind of person who would not be welcome in the Bedford Falls of It's a Wonderful Life. A drunk who gets into bar fights, can't keep a job and has failed at marriage and fatherhood, Sharky has a journey to redemption that is a darker affair, one heralded not by the help of angels but gambling with a force much more sinister.
Set in present day in the Dublin suburb of Baldoyle, The Seafarer depicts Sharky, his blind brother Richard, two friends and a mysterious stranger as they drink and play poker on Christmas Eve.
Centre College drama professor Anthony Haigh directs an ensemble of five whose characters are, like Sharky, riddled with hypocrisy and hope, even as a group. For instance, they are continuously drunk (or trying to be) and yet demonstrate a smug superiority to the vagrant "winos" on the street, whom they enjoy chasing for sport.
The actors sink their teeth into their complicated roles, and the play is best enjoyed as a character study about the glimmers of hope within the flaws of humanity.
The heart of this dynamic lies in Sharky's relationship with Richard, played by Christopher Rose and Mark Smith, respectively.
Rose and Smith effectively underscore the conflicting loyalties and resentments between the two brothers. Even as Sharky is trying to turn his life around and dedicates himself to looking after Richard, Richard underhandedly foils Sharky's efforts.
Brian Sprague and Leif Erickson Rigney bring much of the humor and warmth to the production in their portrayal of Ivan and Nicky, two friends who are intensely likable despite their own failures. Ivan has been drinking for two days, much to his wife's chagrin, and Nicky is a friendly sort but is now with Sharky's ex-wife, a stinging reminder of Sharky's previous shortcomings.
Dave Dampier brings the requisite slick mystique to his role as Mr. Lockhart, an otherworldly character who is playing for keeps. While Lockhart's demeanor is one of silent mystery, the narrative monologue in the second act in which he delivers both a beautiful and terrifying description of heaven and hell is one of the production's most stirring moments.
McPherson's writing alternates between the sharp-witted, quick pace of Irish slang and elegant bouts of reflective narrative, which proves challenging and rewarding for the ensemble.
Fits and bursts of language followed by silence makes for pointedly uneven momentum at times, particularly in the first act, when it is not entirely clear where McPherson is taking us other than a glimpse into the lives of fascinatingly flawed characters.
The paydirt comes in the second act, as seeds of discord and revelation planted early on come to fruition.
While no angel gets his wings, the play ends with a twist of hopeful redemption.