Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Against the oppressive heat of a Michigan summer, the Performance Network Theatre has conjured up a Dublin winter in Conor McPherson's The Seafarer. Under the direction of Malcolm Tulip, the production takes its misguided characters and toys with delivering at least one of them from his hellish fate.

The major story is bundled up tightly with a handful of smaller arcs, touching on themes of dependence and redemption. Recently blinded Richard (Hugh Maguire) is forced to rely on others to provide for him. He and his brother, Sharky (Aaron H. Alpern), eke by with the help of cash settlements they seek after getting drunk and injuring themselves on public property. Everyone has an alcohol dependency. Friend and occasional caretaker Ivan (Keith Allan Kalinowski) waits out Christmas Eve at Richard and Sharky's house after a row with his wife, waiting to find a way back into her good graces. Finally, fair-weather Nicky (Joel Mitchell) swings by to tell of his all-day bender financed by mysterious companion Mr. Lockhart (Richard McWilliams). This is when all the other stories become so much background din: unbeknownst to the others, Sharky discovers he is beholden to the devil for his soul, and his only hope rests on a friendly game of poker.

There is some mirth in this world, and a fair number of comic moments, but misery is never far behind. Although the characters do little services for each other, they seem largely caught up in — and yet terrible at — looking out for themselves. Kalinowski gives Ivan a bumbling take on the vicious cycle, getting drunk anew even as he worries that his wife will never forgive him for staying out drunk. As Nicky, Mitchell is pushy and willfully ignorant, inconsiderate of any potential awkwardness caused by his romantic pairing with Sharky's ex. Alpern is incessantly contemplative, making plentiful use of silence as he resigns himself to a life tethered to his brother. McWilliams's Lockhart, whoever (or whatever) he is, manages to be captivatingly human as he drinks too much, runs his mouth, feeds on Sharky's fear, and betrays a vicious lonesome streak. However, the most arresting performance is that of Maguire, simultaneously groaning over Richard's miserable lot in life as he holds court from the living room, musing on what he will make Sharky do next. The totality of Richard's blindness, with all its attendant physical complications, is marvelous to watch.

From sea shanties to pub-stolen decor, the production values are single-mindedly Irish. Set designer Vincent Mountain and properties designer Michelle Bisbee engender a curious sense of idyllic shambles that suits the production, and Rob Murphy's lighting contributes to the fray with dim lamplight contrasting the harsh hangover glare of casement windows. Christianne Myers's costumes are appropriately rumpled and worn, with enough layers and knits to make one oblivious to the heat outside. The actors' Irish dialects, although far from uniform, are serviceable and easily understood.

In spite of this well-composed production, The Seafarer did leave me feeling a little empty. The characters exist together, but there is no delineation of why they choose to or what they mean to each other — their businesslike lack of real affinity has a coldness every bit as harsh as an Irish December. This is a strange look into the possible redemption of what appear to be irrevocably flawed individuals, a tale for which the moral is absent, or merely open-ended. For viewers who enjoy plumbing the depths of the human condition and pondering the meaning of life, this is a rich story that leaves much unspoken, an otherworldly examination of characters bent on destroying themselves even as they find occasional salvation.


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