Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive at the Chester Theater Company

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A bemused Aimee (Marielle Young) takes in the peculiar dinner conversation of Tommy (Justin Campbell) and Doc (James Barry).
A bemused Aimee (Marielle Young) takes in the peculiar dinner conversation of Tommy (Justin Campbell) and Doc (James Barry).

The Night Alive
written by Conor McPherson

The Chester Theatre Company
June 20 – 30, 2019

Directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer
Set design by Edward Check
Costume design by Charles Schoonmaker
Lighting design by Lara Dubin
Sound design by Tom Shread
Stage managed by Leslie Sears

Nick Ulett – Maurice
Justin Campbell – Tommy
Marielle Young – Aimee
James Barry – Doc
Joel Ripka – Kenneth

Perhaps it was the vivid recent memory of the splendid O’Casey cycle at the Irish Rep in New York, but early in the course of The Night Alive, long before Conor McPherson introduced the time-bound specifics, I felt he was recording a moment in history, as O’Casey had done in many of his plays, especially the earlier ones, which he wrote so close to the events that moved his characters, that they have a whiff of the reportage. The events that surround the action of The Night Alive are no more central to McPherson’s story than they are to O’Casey’s. Both are focused on their characters, on people, as their situation is determined by events outside their control. As pitiless as these circumstances are in limiting freedom of action, they can’t mold or change character in any essential way. The people act in poverty basically as they would in prosperity, in war as they would in peacetime. Yet the Irish playwright—Friel and McGuinness as much as O’Casey and McPherson—retains something of the chronicler at one level or another beneath the surface of his other interests and strategies.

In this case, the historical background is the 2008 collapse that brought Ireland’s boom of the late 90s and early 2000s to an end, and McPherson, writing in 2013, just on the cusp, as conditions began to improve, gives the impression of regarding this as an historical event, and I don’t believe that Americans formulate the similar bust that they experienced in 2008 so much as a historical event as an ongoing cycle which is still present even for people who have recovered from it, with its villains unpunished and heroes dissatisfied. History remains an all-powerful concept for the Irish, whose founding saga began over a century later than the American and continued on into recent memory, and the remedial measures of bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels as well as Dublin created at least a feeling of closure. There is also the extraordinary nature of the economic boom, the “Celtic Tiger,” which brought about rapid credit-fueled prosperity in a nation which had lived for centuries as an impoverished colony of Great Britain.

Without entering into a detailed discussion, I consider this sense of history a deep-lying trait in a people whose early revolutionary strivings coincided with the rediscovery of their pre-Christian mythology. Nothing is forgotten in Ireland. I imagine that a century or five centuries from now audiences will glean a sense of what the collapse of the “Celtic Tiger”was like from The Night Alive.

I associate this disaster with a strange sight I observed walking over the hills in County Limerick in April 2013, when McPherson was presumably at work on the play. In the distance something between a copse and a forest of enormous evergreens towered over a distant hill they grew upon. Norway spruces? There was nothing else like them in sight. A local friend explained that during the boom some entrepreneur saw big, bushy American-style Christmas trees taking over Irish homes, with the plentiful shelter they provided for electronics, toys, and other expensive indulgences exchanged in celebration of the birth of Our Lord. After the bust, he had no capital left to harvest them and lost the land, leaving the trees to grow to such sizes that not even the grandest McMansions could accommodate them. There is in a way a touch of this absurdity in The Night Alive, as ordinary people struggle to cope with the sudden decline in their fortunes.

Our protagonist, middle-aged Tommy, once flooded with capital by the banks, is now compelled to rent a room from his elderly uncle Maurice, who needs the income and a proof of a tenant for the bank that holds his mortgage. Maurice claims to have brought Tommy up, when the rest of the family found him too difficult, and he never had a high opinion of Tommy’s intelligence and capabilities. In a way, however, Tommy shows some ingenuity and persistence in filling the biscuit tin he hides under a step in his room with a manageable stash of euros, intertwining a modest transport business with a few dabbles in petty crime. He’s a good-hearted fellow, too, taking in a young woman who’s been beaten by someone, without ulterior motives, at least immediately. Alienated from his ex-wife and his daughters, Tommy has a sort of dependent in his slow-witted friend and assistant, Doc, not that he doesn’t balk at paying him his due wages—any less than he is ready to fiddle his uncle’s coin box for electricity. Tommy’s generosity does indeed flow more liberally from his heart than his pocket.

As his relationship with Aimee develops, his reluctance to part with cash takes an interesting turn. Doc, for all his want of social adroitness and seeming half-wittedness, surprises us not only with the profundity of his speculations on humanity, God, and the cosmos, but with his keen observations. When he sees the innocent-looking Aimee in Tommy’s room, he is able to inform him that he has seen her about and has heard that her own solution to tough times involves prostitution, if apparently in its milder forms. Later on, after we find them in bed together, he happily gives her her price for a hand job—rather less romantic an intimacy than we imagined at first—without her asking: forty euros, just the sum he tried to avoid paying Doc.

The specifics of the financial collapse only emerge later in the play, even after the appearance of Aimee’s boyfriend and pimp of sorts, Kenneth, he perpetrator of the beating, showing both the psychotic violence of a hardened criminal and a certain insight into the knots in Aimee’s character and an understanding, gained by seemingly painful experience, of their insolubility—a tragic flaw that’s only hinted at on stage until Kenneth’s second, less vicious appearance. These damaged, imperfect personalities play out their inconsistencies in a constrained environment, in which the possibilities are limited by the scarcity of cash and the various effects it has wrought on their imaginations and habits—Aimee’s above all. Things happen. There is an attempted robbery and a murder, the latter less consequential in the face of the dénouement than a traditional play might present it. Compare its consequences in Micheál MacLiammoir’s The Mountains Look Different, recently revived by the Mint Theatre Company in New York. In this 1948 melodrama the consequences of vice are inexorable: a life of prostitution cannot be redeemed, and the murderer must confess and suffer the just retribution prescribed by law, which is death. As one would expect, The Night Alive is rather more ambiguous in this regard. Survival, even good fortune, can be a trap; extinction can be a release, or even a form of redemption. One of the characters, Maurice, is even guided (by Doc) to an earthly paradise.

In that and other features, The Night Alive, like some others among McPherson’s plays, shows some medieval aspects. It could even be taken as a morality tale. The playwright has been known to introduce some figures from Judaeo-Christian traditions—for example, Satan in The Seafarer. In the talk-back after the show, the director, Daniel Elihu Kramer, mentioned an interpretation suggested by one of the actors which partially found its way into the admirable Chester production. In this figures from the Christian cast of characters appear behind the down-and-out Dubliners. I’ll say no more, because it’s the kind of notion that won’t leave one’s mind very easily, and it could well get in the way of other responses you might have to this rich, subtle, and ambiguous play. It was certainly not a flaw in this intelligent, lively production, which did full justice to McPherson’s creation, just one of several insights into the play which inevitably arise from such an perceptive and thoughtful team of director and actors.

Nick Ulett’s wordless turn as the peeved, disgusted landlord surveying the room he has let to his nephew, brings us directly into the physicality of the set as the protagonist’s dismal living environment and scene of the action about to unfold with the sort of economy and comic spice only a seasoned actor of exceptional talent can create. There is some nervousness in our laughter, since this could be leading to a landlord-tenant confrontation. But no, Uncle Maurice disappears as Tommy approaches. We hear his comforting instructions to Aimee before we see either of them. As he settles the bleeding young woman into his room, we might wonder just how long his altruistic helpfulness might last. It’s for real, we discover. A relationship develops between them soon enough, but Tommy’s initial behavior and where it goes are important as ways we get to know him. Marielle Young is prettier and more innocent-looking than other actresses who have played the part, but, apart from her absorbing and sympathetic performance, this has a reason. We first encounter Aimee as Tommy sees her, and that sticks, in spite of what we learn about her hand-jobs and her life with sleazy Kenneth, a low-level criminal and occasional demon, portrayed with volatility and razor-sharp edges by Joel Ripka. Justin Campbell is suffused with Tommy’s goodness throughout the performance, but he is sure to color it with Tommy’s daily dodges and compromises with morality. The other way we get to know Tommy is through his relationship with Doc. It is he who informs us that Doc is somehow lacking intellectually. James Barry’s varied, colorful performance is constantly amusing as he exploits the quirkiness of Doc’s limitations. His work-arounds to cope with a reality he can’t quite grasp often turn out to be rather clever. Then the profundity of his philosophical and theological musings unleashed astonished laughter all around.

Chester’s The Night Alive showed the impressive talents of director and cast in realizing an important and far-from-easy play so fully—brilliantly, in fact. This was my first visit to this simple, but well-equipped theater, as the quality of its newly-installed lighting and sound system showed (not without the rich lighting design by Lara Dubin), and I’ll be back as soon as I can get there.

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