Conor McPherson spins an intricate web of interdependence, horror, and hope among the five damaged, yet intensely human characters in his masterful play, The Night Alive. It takes a hugely talented cast and superb direction to fully reveal the multiple layers of McPherson’s beautifully written saga. Fortunately, Quotidian Theatre Company’s production leads us expertly across a rocky emotional terrain laced with landmines. By all means, go see it!
Set in modern-day Dublin, the action takes place in the grubby, garbage-strewn ‘bedsit’ occupied by Tommy in the home of his uncle, Maurice. Maurice and his late wife Maura raised their nephew, then Maurice watched in disgust as Tommy failed as a husband, father and provider. Having fled his wife and children, Tommy returned to the house where he grew up, now as a middle-aged, down-and-out moocher locked in tension with his disapproving uncle.
Tommy’s sidekick, the seemingly simple-minded Doc, possesses a brain that functions, ‘five to seven seconds’ behind most others. While he exhibits a Forrest Gump-like sweetness and naiveté, Doc is alert to Tommy’s mendacity and insists on being paid in cash and on time for hauling junk and doing other odd jobs with his ‘business associate.’
The three men might have fumbled through the rest of their lives, co-existing in a kind of grumpy stupor, “knocking days off the calendar,” were it not for Tommy’s impulsive act of charity – the rescue of a young woman who he comes upon in a nearby park as she is being beaten by her boyfriend. He rushes the bruised and bleeding Aimee into his fetid room, nurses her, and sets in motion a series of events that ultimately change each character’s life. Their journey from stasis and despair to a place of modest but meaningful new possibilities keeps us all in their thrall.
Matthew Vaky as the protagonist Tommy draws us into the heart and soul of a man who, despite all his failures, cares as best he can for Doc, Aimee, and his family (to whom he is connected mostly by an earpiece). He projects a twitchy nervous energy from the first moment he appears on stage, frantically trying to tidy up the wreckage of his room for his battered guest, Aimee. Prowling through the detritus of dirty dishes, he gallantly offers her a proper cup of tea.
Doc is played with good-heartedness by David Dubov. Shambling about the bedsit in mis-matched clothing and workman’s overalls, he is slow to recognize the threats posed first by Aimee’s mere presence, and then by her maniacal boyfriend, Kenneth. Dubov imbues Doc with affecting vulnerability. While it is virtually impossible for him to function in the world without the protection Tommy provides, Doc’s inability to deal with everyday life ironically liberates him to ponder bigger questions about existence. He is fascinated by black holes, where matter condenses and the concept of time utterly disappears.
Joe Palka gives us a vivid portrayal of Maurice, a cranky but proud and principled man slowed with age and grief over his wife’s accidental death. His dignity is intrinsically bound up with honoring her at an upcoming memorial mass, and maintaining his home. Deeply suspicious of Aimee, he warns Tommy that she will be nothing but trouble.
Listless and seemingly devoid of all emotion, Chelsea Mayo as Aimee projects the emptiness of a beat-up streetwalker and drug-user who sees no other path for herself in life. She can barely react to Tommy’s simple kindness, much less to his growing infatuation with her. She is a realist but ultimately not without her own hopes.
Grant Cloyd fully inhabits the menacing, manipulative Kenneth – Aimee’s estranged boyfriend and pimp. A figure of sheer devilry, Kenneth’s explosive violence reminds us that everything can change in a moment. He literally leaves the audience gasping.
Director Jack Sbarbori also serves as set, costume, sound, and prop designer. His cluttered set echoes Tommy’s despair and hopes. Unmade beds, a tumble of dirty dishes, and James Bond novels litter the floor. Hampers overflow and stale food stacks up on the countertops. Yet when you lift your eyes, the walls are decorated with Tommy’s aspirations. A movie advertisement for The Great Escape shares a wall with travel posters featuring splendid images of far-off, pristine Finland. Multiple statues of Catholic saints, otherworldly symbols of salvation, decorate the opposite wall, bearing constant witness to Tommy’s passionate, if unrealized, urge to transcend his present circumstances.
Though the entire drama plays out in this one space, Sbarbori separates scenes by virtue of several effective ‘gray-outs’ featuring undulating lights and ominous music. Maurice and Tommy change their costumes, inching up into greater respectability. Maurice dons a natty sports jacket to visit his barrister. And when Tommy sheds his polyester tees for a crisp white dress shirt to attend his daughter’s 18th birthday party, the effect is dazzling even if ephemeral.
What will ultimately become of these souls? We are left with hope, but there are no sure bets. What we can hope for is that Conor McPherson will continue to explore the human condition with his finely wrought plays for a long time to come.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission
The Night Alive plays through November 20, 2016 at Quotidian Theatre Company performing at The Writer’s Center – 4508 Walsh Street, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office (301) 816-1023, or purchase them online.