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Review: ‘The Seafarer’ at Stage West

by Jerome Weeks 9 Feb 2009 8:05 AM

High stakes (l to r): Jim Covault, Chuck Huber, Matthew Stephen Tompkins, Chris Hauge and Jerry Russell in The Seafarer KERA radio review: Lawson Taitte’s review in The Dallas Morning News Mark Lowry’s review at Theater Jones Arnold Wayne Jones’ review in the Dallas Voice Jimmy Fowler’s review in the Fort Worth Weekly Director Rene […]


High stakes (l to r): Jim Covault, Chuck Huber, Matthew Stephen Tompkins, Chris Hauge and Jerry Russell in The Seafarer

  • KERA radio review:
  • Jimmy Fowler’s review in the Fort Worth Weekly
  • Expanded online review:

Conor McPherson is a talented young Irish playwright who likes to mix the supernatural in with his gift of amusing gab and his characters’ endless shots of whiskey.

It’s what he did in his 1997 drama, The Weir, the drama that won him an international audience.  In it, four people trade spooky stories late at night in a pub, until the last story ups the ante considerably with some real human pain.

McPherson’s new play, The Seafarer, was a hit in London and New York, and it has a similar set-up. Currently at Stage West, the play is like the old Stephen Vincent Benet short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” — if the old story had lots of cursing and hilarious hangovers.

Four working-class louts wake up on Christmas Eve and arrange for a poker game that night. It’s mostly just an excuse for another holiday booze up. But tagging along to the game is a stranger named Lockhart. And Lockhart makes it clear that the stakes this evening will be the soul of the main character, Sharky.

Sharky has come back home to help care for his older brother Richard because Richard somehow managed to blind himself when he fell into a Dumpster. That little pratfall is about par for the course for these wounded, comic losers. In fact, Sharky is helping out not so much from brotherly love but because his own life has dead-ended in a bottle, anyway: Lost jobs. Lost loves. And something even darker and more violent in his past.

Now, battling the devil in person for your soul is a pretty time-worn story idea. Even The Simpsons has spoofed it on TV. It’s hard to feel frightened for what’s at stake with such a device.

The real story here, of course, is about redemption. Although The Seafarer may not sound like a typical holiday stage play, it holds out a hope for redemption just as much as A Christmas Carol does.

McPherson’s true talent lies not so much with original story ideas, but with storytelling and storytellers. His Irish characters love to talk and mock and argue, and McPherson knows to give some of the worst people the best lines.

Director Rene Moreno has assembled a fine cast at Stage West. Matthew Thompkins brings his characteristic brooding physical anger to Sharky. And Jim Covault negotiates Richard’s blindness and merry alcoholism with a light touch.

But The Seafarer belongs to Jerry Russell as Lockhart (left, with Thompkins as Sharky). Russell lacks the sense of real menace the role requires – even on the human level. Lockhart is a man who’s comfortable with someone beating a person to death in a drunken rage.

But the playwright has given Lockhart speeches that are pure catnip for Russell. He doesn’t simply conjure up a little sympathy for this devil. He lays out precisely that what’s terrifying about hell is not so much the pain, although there’s plenty of that.

It’s loss. The loss of love, of what we once had on earth, of what we could have had in heaven. Not surprisingly, then, the title of The Seafarer comes from an old Anglo-Saxon poem, a lament by an ancient mariner about the loneliness and isolation of his life on the water, his fear of death and his prayer to God to find peace in heaven.

It’s this sense of loss that heightens Sharky’s pain, that adds poignance to Russell’s Lucifer — because Lockhart is as damned and alone and as full of regret as Sharky himself.

LOCKHART: “Ah, you’d have loved heaven, Sharky. It’s unbelievable. Everyone feels so peaceful. Everyone feels at such peace. At a certain moment each day, music plays. A blanket of clear, unthinkable harmony.

Time just slips away in heaven, Sharky. But not for you, no. You’re about to find that time is bigger and blacker and so much more boundless than you could have ever thought possible in your puny, broken mind.”

As you can tell, Russell relishes every Irish syllable. Give the devil his due: It’s McPherson’s language — even with the obscenities — that makes The Seafarer such a pleasure to hear.

And it’s Russell who serves it up like devil’s food cake.