The Seafarer Review - A Second Christmas Tale, A Second Premier

Richard (John Mahoney)

Wrapping around Christmas, Steppenwolf’s 2008-2009 season, in its exploration of “the imagination” brings to Chicago the premiere of two plays by Conor McPherson, Dublin Carol and The Seafarer.  While each play has a powerful message on its own, the opportunity to compare the two plays, which are a variation on similar themes allow for an in-depth exploration.

An aging alcoholic struggling with feelings of isolation and guilt in Dublin at Christmas, hoping for redemption are present in both of the plays.  Dublin Carol, written earlier (1997) has the echo of “Christmas Carol”. The search for connection is more reality based.  In The Seafarer (2006) there is a sense of distance, abstraction, and unreality.  It is tight, simple and powerful.  Celtic folklore was part of the inspiration for this play,  “There’s a myth in County Wicklow about the Hellfire Club. It’s just a ruin now. But it was a place where the English aristocrat landlords would go and be debauched. The story is that they were playing poker one night when a stranger knocked and came in. Someone drops a card, and when he bends down to pick it up, he notices the stranger’s cloven foot. At that, the stranger disappears. Just when the story’s getting good, it stops” The Seafarer makes its Chicago premiere following a critically acclaimed Broadway run.

Richard (John Mahoney) and Ivan (Alan Wilder)

The first act sets out all the information the audience needs to appreciate what follows, We meet Sharkey who comes home to help his recently blinded brother, Richard and Richard’s friend and helper, Ivan.  Ivan can’t find his glasses and without them is nearly as blind as Richard.  Richard demands a lot of care, even more because he is trying to drink away his fears and sense of isolation associated with his blindness.  

Richard (John Mahoney)and Sharkey (Francis Guinan)

Sharkey is trying to be a good person by taking care of his brother and not drinking, making up for a past of heavy drinking and unsustained relationships.  It is Christmas eve, a time when redemption might be possible.  But so much gets in his way.  Immediately, there was the flickering votive lighting the Sacred Heart on the wall, a signal that something unusual was going on.  And there is Nicky.  Richard liked to play cards with him but Sharkey doesn’t want to have anything to do with him because Nicky is now with Eileen who had previously been with Sharkey.  And there is the strange stranger Nicky brings to play cards, Mr. Lockhart. After we meet this group, the action really begins.

Ivan (Alan Wilder), Richard (John Mahoney) and Sharkey (Francis Guinan)

The set, staging, sound and lighting effects were very important aspects of the play.  The set is subtly brilliant, saying so much.  It is both the house where all the action takes place but at one point it becomes a “box” at the bottom of the sea.

Exploring the ideas of guilt and redemption, McPherson believes that in Irish plays. “if there’s message, it’s a simple one: “I know you’re afraid of dying alone in a ditch.  I am too. Let’s be together’. And maybe that’s why Irish plays have a universal popularity.  Because we all die alone.  And we’ve been told that since we were babies.  And it was beaten into us.” The title of the play is taken from a medieval poem about a wretched sailor driven to roam the frozen seas.

Cards-Richard (John Mahoney), Ivan (Alan Wilder), Sharkey (Francis Guinan),Nicky (Randall Newsome) and Mr. Lockhart (Tom Irwin)

The wonderful twists and turns in the script came to perfection with the fine acting and staging, while the ending sends you on your way uplifted.  The characters are so compelling; they stay around in your head for days.

Mr. Lockhart (Tom Irwin) and Sharkey (Francis Guinan)

The Seafarer by Conor McPherson, directed by ensemble member Randall Arney.  The production, features ensemble members Francis Guinan, Tom Irwin, J ohn Mahoney and Alan Wilder with Randall Newsome The design team for The Seafarer includes:  T akeshi Kata (sets), J anice Pytel (costumes), Daniel Ionazzi (lights) and Richard Woodbury (sound).  Christine D. Freeburg is the Stage Manager and Rose Marie Packer is the Assistant Stage Manager.

The Seafarer runs December 4, 2008 – February 22, 2009 in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650 Online ticketing available at

Photos: Michael Brosilow

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