The Night Alive at Steppenwolf Theatre, Review – Mesmerizing and Mysterious


Under all the dark textures in Irish playwright Connor McPherson’s mystifying and haunting play “The Night Alive”, now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, lies something completely unexpected: a bridge to another world; one that is filled with a gorgeous radiating light. This gentle brush of artistic lightness pulsates deep from within this beautifully crafted and remarkable thought-provoking play. Having seen some of McPherson’s other brilliant plays I can honestly say that he has a true poetic gift. He takes what could be a dull and depressing play and sets it aglow with such gentle colors underneath that it coaxes us inside it all, leaving us wanting more at the end.


(left to right) Tommy (ensemble member Francis Guinan), Doc (ensemble member Tim Hopper) and Aimee (Helen Sadler) sit down for late-night chips


However in order to see that light you really need to look deep through the darkness surrounding this play. You have to look past all the clutter, past all the noise, and past the ugliness of it all. That darkness is all superficial. It’s on the outer surface. You have to really look deep inside this work. But once you see the light or, more specifically, once you feel it (harder to describe), then you start to sense it radiating everywhere in this play.


(left to right) Doc (ensemble member Tim Hopper) passionately discusses a recent dream with Tommy (ensemble member Francis Guinan)


Set in and just outside the gloomy and filth-ridden squalor of a home in Dublin, Tommy (Francias Guinan) stumbles up the steps to his building. He’s returning from what should have been an unremarkable outing to buy some chips. Instead, what he comes back carrying is a desperate young woman covered in blood. Her name is Aimee (Helen Sadler) and she has been beaten by her abusive boyfriend.


Tommy allows Aimee to crash amidst the decay of his living quarters for a while as he tends to her needs. All the while he tries unsuccessfully to keep her hidden from his disapproving Uncle Maurice (M. Emmet Walsh), who not only owns the building, but occupies the top floor as well.


During Aimee’s stay she also comes to know Tommy’s friend and business associate Doc (Tim Hopper). He is a man with a mental disability that makes him “always five to 10 seconds behind everybody else.” As the weeks go by Aimee settles into her new life, but things aren’t what they seem. Lurking beneath the shadows is Aimee’s psychotic puppeteer boyfriend, Kenneth (Dan Waller), whose unmotivated acts of sadism cause chaos and alarm in an already fragile environment. Just as Tommy’s life starts to reassemble itself in a more hopeful direction, dramatic events happen that slowly tear it down all over again.


Tommy (ensemble member Francis Guinan)


To say much more of this plot would be to spoil what is an absolutely engaging and thoughtful theatrical experience. However, do pay close attention to the last scene though. It’s intentionally left ambiguous, with two interpretations that are both equally valid.


And while all this would seem like a straightforward story of redemption and strength, it’s not. There’s much more going on.  In fact, part of the beauty of this magnificent play is the sheer vision and scope of it all. It is both mind-blowingly large and intricately small at the same time. An intellectual play for sure but, unlike many American plays that are intellectual, this one is actually entertaining. The Night Alive offers a penetrating introspection into our own souls, as well as an engrossing, and surprisingly funny night of theatre.


(left to right) Tommy (ensemble member Francis Guinan) takes a moment to breathe as Maurice (M. Emmet Walsh) and Doc (ensemble member Tim Hopper) look on


All the characters we meet here are brilliantly performed with both a harsh reality and a hopeful shine underneath by this strong and mostly stellar cast. Steppenwolf’s casting here is great. These characters are flawed people who live every day staggering among the debris of their failed mistakes in life, and constantly straining to find their way in the dark (literally and figuratively). All of these people are lonely and their disordered minds and surroundings reflect that broken sense of reality.


Past mistakes and regrets torment these characters and it reveals so much about who they are. Nearly all of the people we see here are fractured by a severed disconnection to their families. Tommy is divorced and his estranged children are addicted to drugs and want nothing to do with him anymore. Doc keeps showing up at Tommy’s place because his sister’s boyfriend keeps tossing him out and he has nowhere else to go. Maurice is plagued by his wife’s death (of which he blames himself). And Aimee’s complete disconnect from her family has probably led her to become dependent on Kenneth (a man who feeds her insecurities).


Tommy (ensemble member Francis Guinan) looks on as Maurice (M. Emmet Walsh) reminisces about his past


While this might all seem very deep, and believe me it is, it is also unexpectedly a source of some great comic relief which is scattered throughout this gorgeous play. These are people who don’t know how to connect with others anymore and their awkward attempts at relating with each other are mostly amusing, if not hilarious in places, as a result. This is especially true with the bickering back and forth exchanges between Tommy and his cranky Uncle Maurice. The rattling annoyance of Doc and his talks with Tommy remain enjoyable, despite Doc’s longwinded ramblings at times. With the exception of occasionally offering some small bits of extraordinary insight, especially in the last scene, for the most part Doc doesn’t seem to really add much other than moments of clumsy relief to lighten up the play’s mood.


Even through all these genuine moments of lighthearted comedy you still sense a transcendence of something bigger going on in this story. This point is amplified further by an impromptu dance to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”  The title of that song offers a basic question which immensely vibrates all over this play. As Tommy contemplates on that question after the dance, “What is going on? The man who answers that one will….” Yet he doesn’t finish his all-important sentence here, not only because he gets cut off by another character, but because it’s a question that McPherson intentionally leaves blank for us to answer, not Tommy.


There is something larger at stake going on here. Some might say God is the light which reverberates throughout this play, with Kenneth playing the role of devil. But that’s just one interpretation. What is clear is that there are some big existential undertones that swirl in this play. The last scene in particular appears to take place out of time, but it could also just be circumstantial luck.


(left to right) Aimee (Helen Sadler) and Tommy (ensemble member Francis Guinan) tentatively begin a new friendship


Todd Rosenthal’s incredibly detailed cutout set of the mansion and its naturalistic surroundings are a character in its own right. Rosenthal’s amazing hyper-realistic set resolutely blends several themes of the play into one picturesque ideal location that underscores so much of the textures of this play. Just as magnificent is Keith Parham’s lighting design which also heightens the overall sense of mysticism to this play by augmenting the important contrasts between the moments of blinding darkness and scenes with warm radiating light enveloping the room. Mr. Parham’s flow of these light changes feels natural, giving us the time and place of each day without even a word from the characters providing those details for us.


Major kudos needs to go to Henry Wishcamper who is by far one of the best directors in Chicago. Every production of his that I’ve seen has been fantastic (this includes his fantastic play Other Desert Cities at the Goodman last year), and this production is no exception. Wishcamper never gets caught up in over-intellectualizing his productions. He clearly knows what the text means and he brings those qualities out in his staging and in the interactions of the characters. There is some great character work going on in this production and I can’t help but sense the clarity coming from the director’s hand on all of it. Whishcamper’s attention to detail on this production is magnificent.


That’s not to say that this production is perfect (what production ever is). It’s on its way, though. There are a few things that could use some tightening up. Some of the stakes could get raised a bit. The biggest element that is missing from this production is fear. For saying how much death and mortality is alluded to in this play there is a strange absence of that terrifying element. It’s not completely absent though, most of the actors have the fear nailed down. Even Tim Hopper manages to give his scattered character Doc a hint of fear and panic in his scene with Kenneth.


Aimee (Helen Sadler) examines her bruises


But sadly, Helen Sadler, the actress playing Aimee seems a bit too indifferent to everything going on around her. I feel as though Ms. Sadler made a strong character choice to keep Aimee reserved and distant from everyone else, and it’s an understandable choice, but unfortunately that is also what’s preventing her from really exposing her deep fears and thus keeping us from seeing the same shades of vulnerability that we’re seeing from most of the rest of this cast (outside of Kenneth as the villain).


Additionally the Irish dialects need a lot more work. While M. Emmet Walsh does a an outstanding job playing Maurice (his monologue about feeling helpless after watching his wife fall on the ice was the most emotional moment in the play), the actor didn’t really do much with the Dublin accent… or really any accent. He’s not even trying to attempt one here. The actor was so amazing to watch that it didn’t bother me much. It was strange though.


The Irish Dublin dialects of both Helen Sadler and Francis Guinan started off strong, but they dropped in and out as the play progressed. This was especially noticeable with Mr. Guinan in Act 2 when Tommy was having a heated argument with Aimee and suddenly his slight Irish dialect turned into an all-too apparent Midwestern-American one the angrier he got. Similarly Ms. Sadler had an odd habit of occasionally sliding her dialect more towards standard British. In all honesty this is a play with so many universal themes that it could easily be set anywhere. It didn’t have to necessarily be Dublin. And in some ways I wish it had changed just so the actors wouldn’t have to struggle with the dialect so much, and instead just focus on their character's intentions.


(left to right) Tommy (ensemble member Francis Guinan) is exasperated by Doc (ensemble member Tim Hopper)


Despite all the adjustments that need to be made, they’re really minor in comparison to how many things this production gets right. And it gets a lot right. In fact this is one of the best plays I’ve seen in a while, certainly one of the best dramas Steppenwolf has done since Tribes last December. Do yourself a favor and go see this stunning and beautiful work of art while you can


Bottom Line: The Night Alive is highly recommended. This is one of those mesmerizing plays that will leave you thinking long after you’ve left the theatre. It brings up some deep topics that are both introspective and existential. A lot is left unanswered at the end of the play, not so much as to be frustrating, but instead to be awed by it all. This play has a lot of dark textures on its seemingly simple surface, but then there is that lightness under it all that keeps pulling us back in. McPherson’s genius is that he wants us to find that light on our own. He’s not going to show us where it is. He doesn’t give us easy answers. He wants us to keep guessing. Just like the characters in his magnificent play, we are the ones who are also meant to be stumbling around in the dark, through the cluttered mess of our lives, looking for answers – answers not only to this play, but to the meaning of our existence in general. And in this way we may discover that we have more in common with these flawed people than we realized at first glance.


The Night Alive Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, there is no intermission

Location: Steppenwolf (Downstairs Theatre), 1650 N Halsted St, Chicago IL 60614

The theatre is located about a block north of the North & Clyborne station on the CTA Red Line on Halsted Street.

Runs through: November 16, 2014

Curtain Times: Tuesdays, *Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 3:00 PM and 7:30 PM, *Sundays at 3 PM

*There are also 2:00 PM matinee performances every Wednesday from October 29 to November 12, as well as additional 7:30 PM performances every Sunday from October 5 until October 26

Performances for People with Disabilities: The 7:30 PM performance on Sunday, October 26 will include American Sign Language Interpretation. The 3 PM performance on Saturday, November 1 will include Open Captioning for those with limited or disabled hearing. The 3 PM performance on Sunday, November 9 will be performed with an Audio Description for those with limited or disabled vision. For more information please visit the Steppenwolf Accessibility Page.

Tickets: $20 - $82 and can be purchased online (see link above) or by calling the Steppenwolf Audience Services Box Office at 312-335-1650

Discounted Tickets: Ask Box Office about student tickets ($15), senior, 20 for $20, groups, and half-price rush discount tickets.


Directed by Henry Wishcamper, Written by Conor McPherson

Scenic Design by Todd Rosenthal, Costume Design by Rachel Anne Healy, Lighting Design by Keith Parham, Music Composition and Sound Design by Richard Woodbury, Fight Choreography by Matt Hawkins, Casting by Erica Daniels, Dialect Coaching by Cecilie O’Reilly, Production Stage Management by Deb Styer, Assistant Stage Management by Michelle Medvin and Jonathan Nook, Assistant Direction by Kristin Leahey, Assistant Lighting Design by Steven Sorenson, Additional Properties by Andrew Lex, Jamie Karas, and Desiree Arnold, Carpentry by Chris DePaola and Carrie Brandt, Charge Artist Assistance by Zoe Shiffrin

Cast includes: Francis Guinan (Tommy), Tim Hopper (Doc), Helen Sadler (Aimee), Dan Waller (Kenneth), M. Emmet Walsh (Maurice)

Understudies: Isabell Ellison (Aimee), Darren Hill (Doc and Kenneth), Alan Wilder (Tommy and Maurice)

Photo Credits: Michael Brosilow


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