The Seafarer

Burning Coal Theatre at Meymandi Theatre at the Murphey School
Through Feb. 21

Conor McPherson’s fine and funny play The Seafarer has been described as the thinking person’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life, but that is a glib gloss. To begin with, The Seafarer lacks sentimentality (and will be difficult for people allergic to the F-word). It is an excellent piece of writing, spinning the straw of aphorism and cliché into hard gold. Since its 2006 premiere in Dublin, the play has achieved a fame that has spread rapidly around the world; Burning Coal Theatre’s production, directed by Jerome Davis, is the first in this area, and it should not be missed.

You don’t have to be Catholic, or even Christian, to understand that humans poise uneasily on the shifting fulcrum between forces of evil and of good. The Seafarer, which takes its name from an Anglo-Saxon poem concerning voyages of suffering and eventual redemption, is at once a naturalistic look at the struggles of men bobbing in a river of alcohol and an epic in which the antiheroes fight the devil to a standstill. Set in a squalid row house on the outskirts of Dublin on Christmas Eve, the play features two brothers and two of their friends, feckless drinkers alland a suave stranger who joins their poker game.

As the play opens, the light of the world barely flickers for Sharky (Holden Hansen), a ne’er-do-well who has come home after yet another screwup to dry outand to care for his older brother Richard (Peter Haig), now blind. The first action we see is Sharky jiggling the votive lamp by the picture of Jesusbut it won’t stay lit. As Sharky surveys the wreckage of the previous night’s drinking, he finds Richard passed out on the floor, wedged between sofa and table. When he wakes, we find him as manipulative as any hardcore drinker, yet, as the play unfolds, we come to understand that, in the words of the poem, he tries to work “good actions on earth against malice of fiends, [and] brace deeds against devils.” In this he is aided by Ivan (David Dossey), another drunkard, nearly as blind without his mislaid glasses.

Hansen, Haig and Dossey give outstanding performances, bulwarked by those of Randolph Curtis Rand as the devil, Mr. Lockhart, and Stephen LeTrent as his inadvertent servant, Nicky. Rand is perhaps a little too classically Mephistophelean in look and mannerbut his slickness offers high contrast to the deep messiness of the hapless humans.

A little more grunge would be useful in their environment. The set is well detailed but not quite down to smudged doorjambs, sticky spills and greasy headmarks on the furniture, and the lighting is not as dim and bleary as its apparent sources would indicate. When the men struggle, we don’t the sense the sweaty, oily desperation in their bodieswe hear a lot about stink, but the actors don’t quite make us smell it. The production’s intensity could be ratcheted up a notch or two, but both the poetic language and the powerful characterizations make this play seriously rewarding.