The Redeeming Factor
The Casually Supernatural Makes the Rep’s Latest Drama Memorable
I can’t imagine how many shows I’ve seen at the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre. The quality at a Rep show has been pretty consistent over the years, which is great. The problem with a commitment to consistent quality is that all the shows sort of blur together over the years. Yes, I can remember dozens of distinct roles played by every resident acting company member and a number of other regulars, but thinking back, there are very few actual productions that specifically stick out in my mind.
On the surface, the Rep’s latest (The Seafarer) is another solidly entertaining but otherwise forgettable premise. It’s set in Ireland. James Pickering charmingly plays Richrd--the older brother of Sharky--the Lee Ernst character. Sharky’s trying to recover from the alcoholic lifestyle that has consumed his brother and his brother’s friend Ivan (Christopher Tarjan.) Slightly more functional than the other two, Jonathan Gillard Daly plays Nicky—a gentleman whose past is evidently tied-up in that of Sharky. They’re all there on Christmas Eve in a run-down house in a contemporary suburb of Dublin. And they’re all there to play poker. Okay. So aside from a few ironic bits with Pickering drunkenly singing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman” (a clever, perhaps unintended reference to how far this character is from the Scrooge character he’s so familiar as . . .) and the fact that this is an all-male cast playing a bit of all-guy everyman squalor, there isn’t anything real memorable about this production. This is not to say that it isn’t all quite entertaining, but very little of what’s presented so far comes across as being anything that would resonate beyond the current season. We’ve seen situations similar to this play out before on the Quadracci stage and we’ll see them play out again . . .not precisely like this, but similarly enough that there wouldn’t be much to recommend this particular production. Conor McPherson’s script is okay, but it lacks any kind of novelty beyond the depth to make it all that interesting. . . until the character of Mr. Lockhart is introduced.
Smartly dressed and well-poised, Mr. Lockhart (played by Jonathan Smoots) is an interesting juxtaposition to the slovenly, unkempt surroundings. The character is there to play poker with the rest of them. And he happens to be the Christian devil. Aside from that, there really isn’t anything special about him. He only happens to have taken human form and is there to collect on an old debt that Sharky owes him. The remarkable thing about this . . . and what makes this a truly memorable Rep production, is the fact that the character isn’t given any lofty status above everyone else. He’s not some menacing arch-villain everyone instantly recognizes as evil. McPherson has written the role as another sorry soul who was tossed out of heaven. (It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense out of context, but Sharky’s lime, “don’t fall,” ends up being one of the better ones in the play.)
Written as a real, living, breathing entity with motives beyond just being malevolent for the sake of evil, the character of Mr. Lockhart is a supernatural person not out of place in the squalor of Richard’s house in spite of the sharpness of his appearance. It’s Christmas and the place fits his mood. And Smoots, who carries himself with an impeccable Irish accent and the evident perspicacity of a fallen angel taken on human form, delivers a stunning performance here. There’s a bit of monologue where Sharky asks Lockhart what Hell is like. And Lockhart tells him. And it could’ve come across as overly dramatic or heavy handed. Smoots has the knd of stage presence that makes a monologue like that actually work. Without the carefully-rendered, but otherwise forgettable squalor of the rest of the production a performance like this would be meaningless. Without brilliant execution by the rest of the cast, it wouldn’t be worth it. This one’s fun. Perhaps the best show the Rep’s going to stage this season, but not for the usual reasons. Interesting . . .
The Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Seafarer runs through March 7th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre.