A lot to drink in at Performance Network

By Martin F. Kohn

There are no sailors, no ships and certainly no sea in Conor McPherson's "The Seafarer," unless you count the tide of alcohol that rises as the play progresses. The comedy with tragic undertones -- hey, it's Irish -- takes place far from the ocean in a North Dublin living room, really more a wreck room, given the state of its occupants.

Even this community of inebriates has its town drunk. That would be James "Sharky" Harkin (Aaron H. Alpern) who lives in the house with his blind brother, Richard (Hugh Maguire). Ironically, Sharky is on the wagon as the play begins and not until later will the extremes of his besotted behavior be revealed. Also taking up space in the Harkin house is their mate Ivan (Keith Allan Kalinowksi), a semi-permanent guest.

A fourth acquaintance, Nicky Giblin (Joel Mitchell), arrives later.

In the exposition-laden first act we learn that Sharky's girlfriend has dumped him and that he has no permanent employment; that Richard's blindness occurred recently, when he struck his head going after discarded rolls of wallpaper in a dumpster; that Ivan is afraid to go home to his wife, and that Nicky has taken up with Sharky's former girlfriend. Success in life appears to be inversely proportional to how much time you spend at the Harkin house.

But who or what is the seafarer? Don't obsess over the question or you'll miss the play, but the smart money is on Mr. Lockhart (Richard McWilliams), the well-dressed mysterious stranger who arrives late in act one. He is no mariner, but he does get around. He's fishing for something, and the revelation of his identity is guaranteed to keep you around for act two.

Up until then McPherson's play is a study in character and atmosphere. To the credit of director Malcolm Tulip and his actors (with a shout out to set designer Vincent Mountain), they keep things interesting until an identifiable plot emerges.

The Irish accents are persuasive and each actor plays drunk in his own distinct way. Alpern has, and meets, the singular challenge of playing Sharky's depression, his compassion for his brother and a sense of profound of regret. This he accomplishes mostly physically, rather than with words. Maguire's particular challenge is not just to play a blind man authentically, but to play a blind man who isn't used to being blind. Never once does he glance down, the way a sighted person would, at the drink in his hand or to see what's on the coffee table. And he takes an especially convincing tumble.

As Mr. Lockhart, the odd man out, McWilliams navigates the difficult waters of being with, but not exactly of, the four other men. (It's no coincidence that the poker hand four-of-a-kind will figure prominently.)

Also navigating difficult waters is Tulip, who takes a play that could be dangerously static and animates it with Performance Network's best ensemble cast (male division) since its 2005 production of "Take Me Out."

REVIEW:

'The Seafarer'

Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through July 18. $25-$41. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org

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