When we think of Christmas, we think of Santa, mistletoe, shiny red presents, snowmen, prayers — all of which are conspicuously missing in Performance Network Theatre’s new production of “The Seafarer.”

“The Seafarer”

Through July 18
Performance Network Theatre

Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s work drains everything out of conventional holiday spirit and instead pumps in alcohol by the gallon. If the crumpled sheets of wrapping paper and battered Christmas tree weeping from disuse don’t tell this tale of melancholia and sin, the empty wine bottles certainly will.

The play follows one booze-soaked night of debauchery as the recently sobered Sharky (Aaron H. Alpern) and his friends gather to play a casual game of cards. The evening unexpectedly culminates in Mephistophelian tension when the Devil (under the guise of actor Richard McWilliams) comes to collect Sharky’s soul. The play feels like part of an older, Dickensian time, a sort of Irish “Christmas Carol” – only Scrooge is not only bad-tempered and frail but also an alcoholic. All of these people have experienced the darker sides of their alcohol-fueled lifestyles, whether they have resulted in physical or emotional harm. It is truly unsettling to have these characters tell their stories of permanent blindness and accidental murder, only to down another glass of wine right after. We become aware that this devil could very well come to collect after any of these lost souls.

Yet just when the play seems to become a sobering commentary on the nightmarish conditions of the Irish working class, the tone shifts warmly into religious undertone. Relievingly, there is a spot of salvation at the end, told symbolically through a small red light with a Jesus statue above it that literally brightens up the entire stage and prevents the performance from sinking into too great of a cesspool.

In fact, the greatest problems of the performance seem to lay not in the script itself, but rather in the execution: It is difficult to believe that these people are actually Irish. At times, the audience seems more aware of the traces of American accent slipping out than the events unfolding behind them. For instance, the Devil articulates a rather chilling monologue on the toils of everlasting damnation, but McWilliams simply is not a strong enough actor to make McPherson’s words convincing. The highlight of the play is undoubtedly Hugh Maguire, who plays Richard, Sharky’s blinded brother. Maguire decisively tugs the energy back into the play itself with bottomless, almost fey good humor, rather than focusing on the cast’s failures of colloquy.

In short, “The Seafarer” ably portrays the trials of self-identity through alcohol and gambling, tying in concepts of religion and faith in a fairly non-ham-fisted manner. It is in its atmosphere that the play truly excels, from the deep crags on Sharky’s face to the salty, weathered dialogue, evoking an older, more distant past. Despite the play’s emphasis on the nastier sides of alcohol, its message never becomes overbearing — salvaging just enough hope to overcome the Christmas blues.

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