Despite the deceptively fine weather, it isn't spring yet. But somehow, leaving the theater after seeing The Seafarer, I couldn't help feeling that it was. This had something to do with having seen four soul-stirring — and completely different — plays in a little over a month. There was James O'Hagan Murphy's complex interpretation of the murdered presidential candidate in RFK; Buntport's Wake, a sad, strange take on Shakespeare's The Tempest; and the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's Ghost-Writer, which lured the talented Laura Norman back to the stage to play the lovestruck secretary of a dead novelist. And now longtime Denver impresario John Ashton — whom I associate with endlessly recurring productions of the laid-back, amiable and not-too-challenging comedy Dearly Departed, and who decades ago was a Westword staff writer — has emerged with a first-rate production of this serious and extraordinary play by Conor McPherson.
Which is not to say there's anything spring-like in this piece about a pair of drink-sodden Irish brothers, their friends and the mysterious man who shows up for a game of cards. These characters aren't the violent hysterics we encounter in Martin McDonagh or the lyrical souls created by an older generation of Irish writers like W.B.Yeats and John Millington Synge. They aren't comical stage drunks or AA-attending analysands who occasionally go on foolish or vicious sprees. Inebriation is their natural element, the air they breathe, the murky waters in which they flounder.
The action is set in a shabby room with a spindly Christmas tree and a portrait of Jesus displaying his bleeding heart on the wall. Sometime before the action opens, one of the brothers, Richard, took a tumble into a dumpster and lost his eyesight. The other, Sharky, is taking care of him. Richard is bullying, sentimental and profoundly unself-aware, railing drunkenly against the drunks in the alley outside, demanding all kinds of services from Sharky and refusing to let himself be washed or shaved, though at this point he stinks to high heaven. The brothers' friend Ivan, so befuddled that he has trouble remembering how he got to the place, arrives to celebrate Christmas; it seems Ivan was once responsible for a couple of fiery deaths, though it's unclear how they happened. The group is eventually joined by Nicky, current lover of Sharky's onetime love, and a well-dressed stranger called Mr. Lockhart — who turns out to be the Devil. Really. Mephistopheles. Lucifer. Old Nick. The Prince of Darkness himself. He has come to play a game of poker, and what's at stake is Sharky's soul.
Despite the supernatural elements, the action is naturalistic. The dialogue spins a story of lost and meaningless lives; there's aimlessness and repetition, and also little metaphoric bursts — those moments that act like time-release cold capsules, with realizations, associations and related memories opening up in your brain later like night-blooming flowers. The tension throbs between Sharky and Lockhart, building toward the moment when Mr. Lockhart explains to Sharky what Hell really is, in a speech that revives all your deepest and most secret terrors about the darkness pressing against the window, the essential loneliness of the human condition. The Seafarer is Christian in the deepest and least polemical way, and McPherson eventually brings a whisper of salvation into the mucky, disheveled and tainted lives he depicts. He also suggests that the Devil is lonelier and more lost in his nihilism than even these pathetic souls he torments.
Ashton has not only brought this work of genius to a local stage; he also turns in a memorable performance as the quietly despairing Sharky. Beyond that, he recruited Warren Sherrill, a talented actor whom we haven't had the pleasure of watching since Paragon Theatre closed its doors a year ago, to play a cuddly, very out-of-it Ivan. Michael Stricker, also of Paragon, provides the insightful direction. In another terrific performance, Steef Sealy is Richard, as windy, loud and self-aggrandizing as Sharky is self-effacing. Brock Benson's Nicky struts like a tough guy but is reduced to childlike petulance when he loses at poker. And Kevin Hart is an authoritative Mr. Lockhart.
I've no idea what theatrical riches March and April hold — but given the triumphs of January and February, can spring be far behind?