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Seanachai’s ‘Seafarer’ taps into human comedy with earthy charm and touch of grace

Submitted by on Jan 1, 2014 – 1:35 am

Sharky (Dan Waller, right) confront his demon- tormentor (Kevin Theis) in Conor McPherson's 'The Seafarer' at Seanachai Theatre. (Joe Mazza)“The Seafarer” by Conor McPherson, presented by Seanachai Theatre at The Den Theatre, extended through Feb. 8. ★★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

It’s hard to imagine a sweeter greeting for the New Year than Seanachai Theatre’s announcement that it will extend its luminous production of Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer” – originally scheduled to close Jan. 5 – for another five weeks. Lovely, lads, lovely.

Everybody's laughing but the troubled Sharky (Dan Waller, right) in this "Seafarer" scene with, from left, Brad Armacost, Ira Amyx and Kevin Theis. (Joe Mazza)I’ve now seen four accounts of this beguiling Irish tale of dissolution and grace, including the Broadway production and the more recent one at Steppenwolf Theatre, and Seanachai’s penetrating and hilarious staging with a stellar cast directed by Matt Miller is the prize of the lot. Indeed, I haven’t seen finer work on any Chicago stage in the first half of this season.

“The Seafarer” has nothing to do with sailors or ships or the sea, except in the metaphorical sense suggested by the playwright in a preface to his printed text. From an eight-century Anglo-Saxon poem called “The Seafarer,” McPherson quotes these lines:

He knows not
Who lives most easily on the land, how I
Have spent my winter on the ice-cold sea
Wretched and anxious, in the paths of exile
Lacking dear friends, hung round by icicles
While hail flew past in showers…

There you have the state of mind of Sharky, the soul at the center of McPherson’s play, a man of many failures, a tempestuous roustabout given to violence (his present quiescence notwithstanding), a drunk newly pledged to sobriety, a man deeply troubled.

Blind Richard (Brad Armacost, left) gets a steadying hand from Ivan (Ira Amyx) in "The Seafarer" at Seanachai Theatre. (Joe Mazza)Three days Sharky has been on the wagon, a numbing, even disorienting space of time for a perpetual drunk. And for Sharky, this Christmas Eve will be unlike any he has known. For into the meager home he shares with his drunken, recently blinded brother Richard comes a figure from somewhere in Sharky’s past with the Dickensian name of Mr. Lockhart. Not to give away anything at all, Mr. Lockhart is, or appears to Sharky to be, Satan himself, come to claim what he says this poor devil of a mortal owes him: his soul.

Whether Sharky, at once terrified and resigned, will be whisked away to the unimaginable horrors of hell comes down to the last hand of a card game the boys have been playing all night. Winner take all, so to speak.

While Sharky, played by Dan Waller with a mix of passive sullenness and measured distraction, is indeed the protagonist and the character who elicits our compassion, he is not exactly the character at the center of McPherson’s smartly crafted play. “The Seafarer” unfolds as a four-cornered game played around Sharky, and it’s the bizarre and devilishly entertaining players at the corners that command our attention.

The gem of the bunch is Sharky’s older brother Richard, a joyful fish of a drinker who needles Sharky constantly and yet needs his sighted (and caring) brother with brimming desperation. Brad Armacost is riotous as this blind, manipulative sot, a really creative drunk whose chief mission in life is to support the Irish whiskey trade. (His second dedication is to rousting the drunken winos who congregate outside his back door. The man has his standards.)

When tempers flare, Sharky (Dan Waller, left) and Nicky (Shane Kenyon, right) are separated by Ivan (Ira Amyx) as blind Richard (Brad Armacost) listens. (Joe Mazza)If Richard is the loud drunk, bosom pal Ivan – the comically precise Ira Amyx — is the silent one, so totally “jarred” (Irish for drunk) that he can do little more than groan in monosyllables. He is Richard’s fellow and equal in all matters liquid.

Finally, there’s Nicky, friend and yet rival to Sharky, whose ex-wife and children Nicky now comforts. From a dramatic standpoint, Nicky is the most calculated of McPherson’s characters, a catalyst who brings Mr. Lockhart into the mix and sets Sharky on critical edge. That said, Shane Kenyon injects spirited life into this useful fellow – and he gets one of the play’s best lines when he observes that Sharky’s left hook is nothing compared with the force of his wife’s words, which can hammer you into the wall.

Did I say finally? No. finality comes in the form of Mr. Lockhart – the slick, amiably smiling and ringingly vicious Kevin Theis. Twice, the room empties except for Sharky and Mr. Lockhart, whose terrifying monologues convince Sharky that his hour has come, that his messed-up life is about to end with eternal suffering at hand. Only Sharky grasps who this stranger really is. Only Sharky sees it. Yet Richard, blind and blasted and older, may also be wiser. He’s a perceptive judge of another man, and loves a good game of poker, too.

Matt Miller’s fluent, vibrant direction is well companioned by Joe Schermoly’s flavorfully rumpled set design and Julian Pike’s dramatically pointed lighting, and this credible mash-up of Irish inebriates have absorbed the lessons of dialect coach Elise Kauzlaric. In the fullest sense, this “Seafarer” is an ensemble beauty.

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