The Seafarer – a Christmas-themed play set in Ireland – arrives in DC too late for both the Yuletide season and St. Patrick’s Day. But that’s no reason to miss it. Anyone who wants to feel some of the Christmas spirit in the middle of Spring – or get a taste of Ireland in the middle of Washington, D.C. – would be wise to check out SCENA’s well-staged, impressive version of Conor McPherson’s play.
Though The Seafarer takes place on Christmas Eve, there’s not much Christmas cheer in the Dublin house where the play is set. Hot-headed Sharky (Eric Lucas) is licking his wounds from a recent street fight as he takes care of brother Richard (Joe Palka), who was rendered blind after he stumbled into a dumpster on Halloween.
Richard repeatedly expresses a desire to make everything “nice and Christmassy,” yet his ideal Christmas seems to exist at the bottom of a bottle – or several. When they’re joined by fellow souses Ivan (Brian Mallon) and Nicky (David Mitchell), who are each dodging their wives in the midst of a Christmas bender, they agree to spend the evening on a game of poker. But Nicky has also brought along the mysterious Mr. Lockhart (David Bryan Jackson), a demonic force who has plans to win a very specific Christmas gift from the card game: Sharky’s soul.
The Seafarer draws its title and themes from an elegiac 8th century poem, though there are obvious Faustian overtones as well, as Lockhart quickly reveals himself to be a malevolent, inhuman force who has come to collect on Sharky’s 25-year-old debt. But The Seafarer also plays as a mirror-image, acid-tinged variation on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: the supernatural force haunting Sharky’s Christmas Eve is not a message-bearing spirit but a malevolent demon, bent on damning him to Hell before dawn breaks on Christmas Day. Sharky, like Scrooge, is a man haunted by the mistakes of his past – and like Scrooge, he’ll need to overcome demons both external and internal to earn the joys of Christmas Day.
Though the The Seafarer was written by Conor McPherson just six years ago, it has already seen numerous stagings (including one at Washington D.C.’s Studio Theatre in 2009 and one at Bethesda’s Quotidian Theatre in 2010). But SCENA has managed a version that distinguishes itself. Michael C. Stepowany’s beautifully-designed set is rich with detail, from the bottles of Harp beer which litter the living room to the gym socks that hang from the mantle, nailed on as a last-minute approximation of Christmas stockings. The house has a lived-in, almost claustrophobic feel which only increases during the second act, while beer bottles and Chinese takeout containers amass as the stakes get higher and higher.
The play’s cast is similarly impressive. Though the apparent age gap between Mr. Lucas’ Sharky and Mr. Palka’s Richard is initially distracting – the two would make a more convincing father-son pair than brothers – each actor puts in a performance strong enough to justify his casting. Watching The Seafarer, one gets a genuine sense of the history between the two brothers, in the mutual anger and petty irritations – and, underneath it all, the love.
The familial character drama is compelling enough that it’s almost a disappointment when Mr. Lockhart makes his appearance. Though the supernatural angle gives The Seafarer its dramatic hook, his intervention undercuts the play’s more grounded – and interesting dramas.
The Devil is one of theater’s most-commonly portrayed character, and David Bryan Jackson offers a serviceable but undistinguished take on the fallen angel; his Lockhart alternates between slippery gentility and black-hearted menace, and Mr. Jackson is more convincing at the former than the latter. The Seafarer’s one innovation is the Devil’s own loneliness, which manifests as he binge-drinks enough to rival any of his apparent targets. Though you’re not likely to feel any sympathy for him, there’s something faintly tragic in his solitude at Christmas – a time when “goodwill toward all men” means that his power is at its yearly weakest.
Unfortunately, The Seafarer’s climactic poker game is one of its weaker elements. There are so many stories about competitions between humans and Satan – the chess game in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” the trial in Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” the fiddle match in the Charlie Daniels Band hit “Devil Went Down to Georgia” – that the story trope has practically become a genre unto itself. But The Seafarer dilutes its challenge by including the rest of its hapless characters, who are unaware of the real stakes at hand, in the poker match between Sharky and Lockhart. And the resolution (which I won’t spoil here) is a bit of a cheat, albeit a thematically-appropriate one.
But despite its small, inherent flaws, The Seafarer remains a strong piece of drama, ably staged and performed by SCENA’s creative team. Though its story trends toward the supernatural, this is, in the end, a play about human nature – and its insights are well worth witnessing firsthand.
Written by Conor McPherson
Directed by Robert McNamara
Produced by SCENA Theater
Reviewed by Scott Meslow
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with 1 intermission