A different kind of “Christmas cheer”

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Allen Hamilton as Richard and Patrick Bailey as Ivan in the Jungle Theater production of “The Seafarer” by Conor McPherson.

While many theaters are bringing back their warm holiday chestnuts of “A Christmas Carol” or “All is Calm” or “Black Nativity,” Jungle Theater is trying out its own brand of seasonal entertainment. “The Seafarer”, by Conor McPherson, is the tale of four Irish drunks who’ve pretty much wasted their lives, and proceed to spend Christmas eve playing a game of poker while getting blitzed. Director Joes Sass said despite the boozing and cursing, the play glows with the holiday spirit.

It is entirely concerned with the gentle moments of grace and kindness these characters exhibit for each other. Conor McPherson was inspired to write this play after visiting Newgrange, a Neolithic tomb built into an Irish hillside. The interior of this tomb always remains in pitch blackness–except on the dawn of the winter solstice, when the rising sun reaches into the tomb and floods it with brilliant light. It is an ancient and powerful metaphor for Light conquering Darkness, and about new life beginning. McPherson said “I wanted to write a play about that moment–when the light comes in at the end.”

Kilbourne.jpgThe darkness in the lives of these men appears to be the desperate state in which they live. Richard has recently lost his sight and is adjusting poorly to his new disability. Sharky cares for his brother despite the constant abuse Richard heaps onto him. Ivan can’t help but drink himself into a stupor, leading his wife to kick him out of the house. Nick is shacking up with Sharky’s ex-girlfriend and prone to consuming all his friends liquor.

The drama and suspense comes with the arrival of a certain Mr. Kilbourne, who it turns out has played poker with Sharky before, and is a bit of a shark himself when it comes to cards. Before long it’s clear that Kilbourne is no ordinary visitor, and Sharky realizes he’s playing for more than just the pot on the table.

Phil Kilbourne as Mr. Lockhart in “The Seafarer”

Sass said another one of the inspirations for “The Seafarer” was the legend of Dublin’s ‘Hellfire Club,’ a hunting lodge that in the 1800s was used by aristocrats and land-owners to gather for drinking and card-playing:

The story goes that one night the Devil arrived, disguised as a stranger dressed in black, seeking shelter from the storm. When one of the other guests bent down to pick up a dropped playing card, he noticed the stranger had cloven hooves for feet–and the Devil vanished in a puff of smoke. In “The Seafarer,” McPherson explores the next chapter of that myth; what might have happened if the Devil had stayed the night, and why was he there in the first place?

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Sharky (played by Stephen Yoakam) contemplates his bleak past and even bleaker future in “The Seafarer.”

Sass believes playwright Conor McPherson to be a master of storytelling. Sass directed another McPherson play, SHINING CITY, in which a man was haunted by the ghost of his recently deceased wife. He says “The Seafarer” explores, in a much funnier way, similar themes about how we strive to break away from past relationships, turn over a new leaf, and create a second chance for ourselves.

Despite their appalling behavior, audiences will immediately recognize the peculiar bonds of family and friendship that link the characters: the bickering brothers, Sharky and Richard; and their friends Nicky and Ivan–local lads who don’t have much to show for their life except their mutual love of cards and drink. But when the Devil darkens the doorway, they have each other’s backs.

“The Seafarer” gets its name from an anonymous English poem written in the late 8th century.

“He knows not/

Who lives most easily on land, how I/

Have spent my winter on the ice-cold sea/

Wretched and anxious, in the paths of exile/

Lacking dear friends, hung round by icicles/

While hail flew past in showers…”

Sass said the poem’s bleak description of life at sea could aptly describe that of any one of the characters in the play. But by the end you’re left wondering if the most desolate one of them all isn’t the devil himself.

“The Seafarer” opens tonight at the Jungle Theater and runs through December 20.

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