Friday, October 30, 2009
The Seafarer returns, and Towers towers
The cast of The Seafarer. Production photos by Meghan Moore.
Within the last two years I've seen three productions of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer, so I'm beginning to feel like something of an expert on it. One of these was the author's own, which played like a bare-knuckled brawl between lost souls; what was startling about that version, and what I think has made the play so widely produced (along with McPherson's grimly lyrical monologues), was the surprise of its final sense of salvation, when those souls were revealed as not quite beyond hope after all. The script seemed far less potent, however, in a weak showing at SpeakEasy last fall; I blamed the gap largely on that production's superficiality and over-earnestness.
So I was glad to hear the Merrimack had taken it up again; that theatre's artistic director, Charles Towers, is certainly the most serious (and I'd argue the most talented) theatre-maker in town, and he does it old-school, without the props of "concept" or "updating" or what-have-you. With Towers, you know you'll get the play, without apology, and indeed with pride - because he knows that in the end, the play's the thing. And The Seafarer - probably the best new drama of the past few years - deserved a truly rich and resonant New England production.
But at first I was surprised to discover how far Towers had wandered from McPherson's own vision; this is a much darker and more ruminative version than I think the playwright imagined himself. It's also not flawless - the set feels slightly self-conscious, and I'd argue the director has made one major mistake in his casting. But damnit if Towers doesn't in the end work his familiar magic, and even perhaps surpasses the playwright in his vision of the play. This isn't merely the darkest Seafarer I've seen; it's also the deepest, and perhaps the best.
McPherson was inspired to pen the script by an Old English poem of the same name, which begins (in loose translation):
This tale is true, and mine.
How the sea took me, swept me back
And forth in sorrow and fear and pain;
Showed me suffering in a hundred ships,
In a thousand ports,
and in me.
In those lines one senses immediately a correspondence with McPherson's own voice; no wonder he was drawn to the arc of this lonely song (recorded in the Exeter Book, at left), that moves slowly but inexorably not toward man but toward God, and a final affirming Amen.
Of course (in case you've never encountered the play, or the playwright), McPherson's sea is one of alcohol, and his seafarers are all very hard cases, lurching drunkenly toward a defiantly "merry," but actually deeply desolate, Christmas Eve in a chilly rowhouse basement. Actually, there's a lone holdout among McPherson's revelers: Sharky, his lead, who is trying to keep the bottle at bay, as he has realized at last the mess it has made of his life. It's hard to be a teetotaler on Christmas, however, and harder still when not St. Nick but Old Nick himself shows up at your front door, in some dark Gaelic variation on A Christmas Carol.
Stranger still, Old Scratch has shown up equipped with a deck of cards, and a line about something Sharky promised him long ago, at yet another low point in the dark valley of his life; and by dawn the two are battling through a fateful game of poker, with our hero's immortal soul as the stakes. But on this simple, spooky premise McPherson has woven a skein of image and symbol that impresses me more every time I hear it. Is the Devil simply a living symbol for the bottle - or for the cold self-absorption that so often attends it? Or does Old Nick represent the long bill of reckoning that Sharky has been tallying his whole life? Fortunately, McPherson never settles on a single, simple metaphor to "explain" his set-up; instead, he allows his central situation to ramify into a complex meditation on temptation, and the inevitable loneliness of the fall from grace.
It's that sense of solitary descent that Towers captures with particular assurance and insight. His Sharky, David Adkins, registers with palpable pain every blow that circumstance delivers - he's lost his wife, his home, his last job, and even his car - just about everything but his blind, irascible brother, Richard (Gordon Joseph Weiss), whose angry brand of merriment is hardly a comfort. To be honest, the director doesn't quite capture the sodden sparks that Richard's bitter camaraderie, desparate as it may be, should send off. And he's made one obvious mistake in the casting of his drinking buddy, the hopelessly hapless Ivan. Played with the proper touch of looniness, the character brings a welcome touch of whimsy to the proceedings, but Towers has cast a "straight man" in the part - Jim Frangione, a likable but low-key journeyman who only brings Ivan partly to life (and only partly bothers with his accent, too).
This misstep is made up for by the rest of the cast, however. As the blind Richard (vision is another symbol woven subtly through the play), Gordon Joseph Weiss deploys the same crackling comic chops he displayed in last year's Moon for the Misbegotten, mixed this time with hints of a secret, rueful insight (my only caveat is that Richard should look far greasier than Weiss right now appears). Weiss was ably abetted by local stalwart Allyn Burrows, who I thought brought almost too much heft to the lightweight Nicky Giblin, the other Christmas visitor who's now bedding Sharky's wife; but I'm not sure I can really criticize an actor for bringing too much depth to a role! Especially when Mark Zeisler (at left, with Adkins) brought the same sense of solidity to Old Nick - here styling himself as "Mr. Lockhart," in a dark new suit and sleek camel hair coat. Zeisler was convincingly menacing, indeed at times ferocious, yet also drew real pathos from Lucifer's sense of his loss of God, and memorably essayed his heart-freezing vision of Hell. My only quibble with the performance was that I missed the strange sense of the alien that Ciaran Hinds brought to the role on Broadway; when Hinds gazed down at his arms and marveled at "this insect body," you got a sense that some very weird angel indeed had alighted onstage.
In the end what made the production special (and what makes the Merrimack so often so fine) was watching these performances click together, like so many gears, into a finely-tuned ensemble. This is one of the great joys of live theatre, and you simply don't see it much anymore, not at the deep level Towers produces; but I'd take it in a minute over a zillion booty calls or haunted houses at Harvard. By now, the Merrimack's track record is unparalleled locally - in just the last few years, they've produced A Delicate Balance, Skylight, Moon for the Misbegotten, and now The Seafarer, all of them close to masterpieces, and almost all directed by Towers, whose magic I admit is a bit mysterious, as he's certainly not the cleverest or most ingenious manager of stage business around. He simply seems to trust the quality of his material more than anybody else, and digs further than anybody else.
And anyone who has sat with an audience at Merrimack - a crowd that's usually quietly absorbed and attentive in a way you almost never see in Boston - understands immediately what the pay-off is for this kind of work. If only more of a pay-off were coming from the foundations and funds that are supposed to be supporting theatre but would rather be supporting trends and social work! Merrimack is actually doing fine financially - but only, of course, by carefully limiting the plays it does to small (or even single-person) casts. To be honest, however, Charles Towers is the local director who most deserves a wider canvas. If there's anyone local to whom we could entrust the classics, much less large-scale new works like The Coast of Utopia, it would be him. But will the powers-that-be ever wake up and realize that?