The current Richmond Hill Players production is packed with testosterone, alcohol, playing cards, family tensions and intermittent bursts of explosive drama.
The excellent “The Seafarer” (by Irish playwright Conor McPherson) addresses many themes but RHP director Justin Raver says it’s a story of brotherly love, even though it’s often hard to see that affection in the worn living room of those Irish siblings, the imposing James “Sharky” Harkin (Matthew McConville) and disheveled Richard Harkin (Gary Talsky).
Raver’s director’s note says he picked “The Seafarer” as something modern and dark, in contrast to the many lighthearted pieces more common to the area (including the Geneseo barn theater, save this season’s “Misery”).
During the rehearsals for this show, Raver said he lost his own brother and everyone involved with the five-character production helped him deal with that grief, in that “The Seafarer” is ultimately a story of familial bonding and hope. There are beauty and inspiration to be found inside the rough darkness and challenges.
Set on Christmas Eve in Baldoyle, a coastal town near Dublin, the play centers on Sharky, a drunk who is now off the bottle and returned to town to care for his elderly, irascible brother Richard, and you can sense both McConville’s intense dedication and Talsky’s frustration and emphasis on staying positive.
Richard (who lost his sight just two months earlier after falling in a dumpster) also makes constant demands of his younger brother, treating him more like a servant than a roommate. There are clear, tragic layers to the profound, complex performances of the two men.
The play follows Sharky’s attempts to stay sober during the Christmas season, as well as his rocky relationship with his loud brother (who has a big, dominating personality) and his own hidden demons and troubled conscience. The 2006 play — taking its title from the old Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name — explores themes of regret, family, substance abuse, and ghosts both real and supernatural.
Richard is determined to celebrate the holiday, inviting old drinking buddies Ivan (Pat Kelley) and Nicky (Bobby Metcalf) to the house to play poker. But Nicky brings along a stranger – the mysterious Mr. Lockhart (Bruce Carmen) – who reminds Sharky of a long past meeting they had on exactly this date, 25 years ago.
With the addition of this figure from Sharky’s haunted past, the friendly poker game takes a sinister turn; soon it’s clear that Sharky may be playing for his very soul.
There is tension between McConville and Metcalf since Nicky is with Sharky’s ex-wife Eileen (a fitting touch, not in the script stage directions, when “Come On Eileen” is Nicky’s cell ringtone).
McConville has a poised, consistently strong presence, which seemingly threatens to boil over into rage at many moments. At a key scene late in the first act, I wondered when the real drama would finally emerge, and it does with fire and brimstone, as Carmen and McConville are alone together.
A true devil (dressed nattily in black and red), the smooth, condescending Lockhart pulls Sharky aside, reminding him that they had met previously when they were both sent to jail after Sharky was arrested for killing a homeless man. Sharky says he doesn’t have a good memory of the incident, which changed his life.
As the lights ominously dim in the theater, we hear the story of the jail where Sharky agreed to a game of cards with an unusual wager—he agreed to bet his soul on a single game of poker against Lockhart. Sharky then won btu there was a satanic clause in the deal – though Sharky would go free then, Lockhart would have the chance to later return to challenge Sharky to a rematch for his soul.
Carmen is witheringly menacing, brutal, yelling and demonizing McConville, in truly evil fashion. When the stage lights come back up, the other three guys come back, laughing over drinks. McConville is pale and scared, like he saw a ghost.
In the second act, we have another poker game among the five men (Ivan, who lost his glasses, acts as the eyes for Richard). McConville has a dead-eyed stare, shooting daggers into the eyes of Carmen. And they have a similar one-on-one talk of foreboding.
In the group, there’s more arguing and accusations, and Sharky finally explodes in overpowering anger, for which he later apologizes. Kelley and Metcalf embody the calming, good-natured aspect of their roles.
The twist ending is not as satisfying as it could have been. But “The Seafarer” (complete with solid Irish accents) is an impressive vehicle for five very talented actors who take us on quite an adventure – if not a journey of miles, then of souls.
The play continues Oct. 12-15 – at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Barn Theater in Richmond Hill Park. Tickets are $12, available by calling the box office at 309-944-2244or by visiting the website HERE.