Chicago Theatre Review
Making the Ordinary Extraordinary
The Night Alive – Steppenwolf
Getting by. That’s how Tommy, who’s not a bad guy, manages to survive life. Renting a room from his Uncle Maurice that he’s turned into a rubbish heap, Tommy survives in this Dublin hovel that’s strewn with garbage, mounds of clothing, clutter and questionable decaying debris. He works at odd jobs to make ends meet and pay his child support. Tommy carries out his menial tasks and get-rich-schemes with some assistance from Doc, his long-time, very dependent friend and partner, “whose thoughts will always be at least five to ten minutes behind everyone else.” But Doc’s not that unique in Conor McPherson’s dramatic universe; all five characters in his play seem unable to find order or make sense of their lives.
There’s Aimee, a beaten and bloody young woman, who Tommy rescues from the wrath wrought by her former “former boyfriend.” Navigating through life seems even more confusing to her than to this middle-aged man who has protected and brought home to recuperate. Aimee manages to survive by shoplifting and prostituting for merchandise and quick cash, but she doesn’t know how to respond when someone offers her honest affection. Tommy, by the same token, isn’t all that comfortable offering it, either to Aimee, to his pal Doc or his Uncle Morris. All of these characters, in one way or another, are Tommy’s dependents, but the man is barely able to support himself. However, amid McPherson’s murky, often frightening world of shadows and darkness, these characters search for their humanity through the most unlikely situations, carefully maneuvering in their attempt to find the light. As a result, the playwright creates the extraordinary out of the ordinary.
The brilliant Henry Wishcamper, known for directing such dark works as “Ask Aunt Susan,” at the Goodman, as well as the Broadway premiers of many other of McPherson’s plays, brings his deep familiarity with the playwright and his writing to this production. Knowing when to allow his characters time to just be and reflect is as important as understanding when to ramp up the action. Wishcamper does just that. Set within Todd Rosenthal’s detailed, clutter-filled scenic masterpiece, framed by an abundance of outdoor greenery, Wishcamper’s characters have a playground in which they’re able to explore, plan, search and fight. The play’s 100 minutes of storytelling, which seems to sail by, is achieved by this skilled young director employing moments of darkness juxtaposed with quick bursts of humor and light.
With Steppenwolf’s uber talented, much-accomplished ensemble member Francis Guinan in the leading role of Tommy, this production can’t be anything but astounding. This actor is terrific. Thoughtful and sensitive, honest and affecting as a man who seems to be constantly treading water to keep from drowning, Mr. Guinan is magnificent. His relationship with his friend Doc, however exasperating, is filled with patience and laced with fraternal love and understanding. His rapport with Maurice (played with gruffness and spirited superiority by the superb character actor M. Emmet Walsh), while much of the time is defensive or confrontational, finds a quiet, empathetic moment as his uncle weeps when only three mourners pay their respects at his wife’s memorial. Guinan’s care and gentleness with Aimee (played by Helen Sadler as a gentle soul trying hard to survive), is at once paternal and romantic. He offers her everything in an attempt to help this young woman through a bad time and find her own way to brightness.
Tim Hopper’s characterization of Doc is the highlight of this production. An unbelievable actor who impressed with his recent portrayal of Boris in Steppenwolf’s “Russian Transport,” does an about-face, making this geeky, challenged young man into a soulful, heartbreaking fellow who’s both dependent and eager to give. Doc’s explanation of what constitutes a black hole strangely resonates as the theme of this play. In Mr. Hopper’s capable hands, Doc’s need to be loved turns into a breezy, easy-going demeanor that belies his desperate emotional demands. Continually beaten and banished from his sister’s home, there’s something sweet and pathetic about this vulnerable, homeless young guy. When the audience senses the danger threatened by Kenneth, Aimee’s former pimp boyfriend (a frighteningly intense Dan Waller), the horror in that scene becomes profound.
Conor McPherson’s plays, which often have the power to take everyday experiences and fill them with subtle poignancy and unexpected humor, are masterclasses in storytelling. This play is no exception. A prolific playwright and screenwriter, the Irish-born Mr. McPherson is the author of such theatrical successes as “The Weir,” “The Seafarer,” “Shining City” and “Port Authority” and is an expert at making the familiar seem remarkable. Steppenwolf’s stunning production, which opens their 2014-15 season is, in director Henry Wishcamper’s hands, a masterpiece that should be on every theatergoer’s list of must-see productions this Fall.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 18-November 16 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in the Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the theatre box office, through Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.