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Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010

Difficult But Delightful ‘Seafarer’ at Milwaukee Rep

Theater Review

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The Seafarer takes its title from an ancient English poem hearkening to man’s spiritual struggle for peace and endurance. The Milwaukee Rep’s new production comes courtesy of talented Irish playwright Conor McPherson, whose early years of alcoholism are not lost in this Irish morality play.

Card-playing men at a whiskey-besotted Christmas Eve celebration are visited by “Mr. Lockhart,” Lucifer himself, brilliantly portrayed by Jonathan Smoots. He has come to claim “Sharky” (the talented Lee Ernst), who has forgotten his 25-year-old pact with Mr. Lockhart. It appears he bartered his soul to get out of prison for a drunken, accidental homicide. Sharky is visiting his blind brother, Richard (expertly played by James Pickering), who requires much tending. They are joined by Ivan (Christopher Tarjan) and Nicky (Jonathan Gillard Daly), who add more humor to the proceedings with each refill, giving much-needed human dimension to what is about to happen.

Pacts with the devil are nothing new since Faust, but the moral dilemma here is played with a lighter touch, equating eternal damnation with an eternal gamble. This particular paranormal visitor is a gamy sort who enjoys boozy Irish fun and is willing to challenge the gods of irony by letting Sharky’s final damnation rest on the outcome of a card game—much to everyone’s delight except Sharky’s.

The first act is the weakest, taking too much time to establish characters without addressing a central theme until Mr. Lockhart’s much-belated appearance late in the act. Delaying the main action throughout the first hour seems pointless. Lee Ernst’s kindhearted interpretation wins empathy for Sharky, but then he is the only character on the wagon, seemingly atoning for his supposed sins by taking care of his brother.

The card game is wisely poised as a series of moves constantly disrupted by outbursts from the thoroughly inebriated characters freely laying out their personal hostilities toward each other, creating a break in the central conflict between Mr. Lockhart and Sharky while increasing the suspense surrounding their final confrontation. Mr. Lockhart remains deadly calm throughout.

Many will find the most interesting section of dialogue to be Lockhart’s contrast between hell and the heaven to which he is forbidden to enter. Lockhart implies a curious similarity between the two domains, but McPherson wisely does not linger on the profound. This remains a difficult play to absorb emotionally, presenting a curious balance between cynicism, compassion and the wings of fate. In lesser hands, and without this excellent cast, it might not work. But Ben Barnes’ outstanding stage direction is a huge plus, and, while ambiguous at times, Seafarer never feels oppressive and is often delightful.

Milwaukee Rep’s The Seafarer continues through March 7 at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.

Soulstice Theatre’s Engaging ‘Love Letters’

By Russ Bickerstaff

In the wrong hands, A.R. Gurney’s epistolary play Love Letters can come across as inadvertently comical. As actor and actress sit onstage reading a lifetime of hopes and dreams, decades play out in minutes and we, the audience, are supposed to connect with characters we never see in a natural setting. It can often feel forced, with a sterile stage as the setting for two people’s most intimate emotions. But Soulstice Theatre managed a clever solution to some of the forced dramatics in its production of Gurney’s classic at Sheridan’s in Cudahy over the Valentine’s weekend.

Reprising their roles from a previous production, Char Manny and Mark Flagg played distant lovers Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III. The play was staged over dinner at Sheridan’s. Manny and Flagg took their seats in a central location, and Valentine’s conversations mixed with the voices of the actors to create a very natural feel. The generational mix of people attending dinner at Sheridan’s created an organic context for the romance between Melissa and Andrew. Flagg’s voice has a broadcast-quality richness that carries well in a crowded room, and Manny’s expressive energy guided the emotion of the piece exceedingly well.

Soulstice’s staging of Love Letters leads into the company’s two-weekend reader’s theater production of Pursuit of Love.Debra Babich directs a series of romantic shorts, including a couple written by Doubt author John Patrick Shanley. Soulstice’s Pursuit of Love runs Feb. 18-27 at the Marian Center for Nonprofits.

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