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Letter from the Artistic Director on The Seafarer

by Martha Lavey

By the time The Seafarer opens in our Downstairs Theatre, another of Conor McPherson's plays, Dublin Carol, will be running in our Upstairs Theatre. It's such an honor to be able to present two plays by this remarkable writer concurrently to our Steppenwolf audience. I hope that you will avail yourself of the opportunity to see both. Both plays are set over Christmas, the end-of-the-year holiday. It is the season's dark moment, when, in the Christian narrative, the world awaits the birth of the savior. It is moment of reckoning, the occasion when we are judged "naughty or nice" and gifted accordingly. In traditions around the world, these dark days are honored with rituals that acknowledge the underworld, the loss of our vegetation and the diminishing of daylight, and provide a narrative of the new light and growth that await us. The great wisdom of our season's cycles has a profound psychological resonance which McPherson explores beautifully in his nuanced use of Christmas as the season of darkness and light. The story of The Seafarer is a simple one; its interpretive shimmer is complex. A middle-aged man, Sharky, returns to the home of his elder brother, Richard. We come to learn that it is their childhood home. Richard, recently blind, is assisted in his negotiation of the world by his friend, Ivan. Ivan himself is nearly blind, having lost his eyeglasses on the night of the play and both Ivan and Richard are further stumbled by drink. They awaken on Christmas Eve morning, furiously hung over from their night before and spend the day drinking, first to overcome the hangover from the night before and then, in their figuring, to begin the celebration of Christmas. Drink plays a central role in The Seafarer: Sharky has returned home committed to his newly avowed sobriety. The invitations to abandon his pledge are constant throughout. Drinking is the central act of his companions; it is the culture from which he emerged; it is the evidence of all human bonding. Or, one should say, of all bonding among men. Women are spoken of constantly throughout the play, no women appear in the play. Women are the feared other, the voice on the other end of the phone, the presence one fears encountering after a long night of drink and forgetfulness. Women and children are the responsibilities one neglects, and regrets neglecting, a regret that prompts further drinking. (And thus, further forgetting and neglect). Enter Nicky and his friend, Mr. Lockhart. We learn that Nicky is the second husband of Sharky's former lover, Eileen. Mr. Lockart is his somewhat mysterious friend. His affiliation unexplained, this well-dressed man, who has accompanied Nicky on his peregrinations throughout the taverns of Dublin on Christmas Eve. Soon enough, the men determine that a card game is in order. Thus ends the first act during which we have gained insight into the world of these men and learned, in particular, a bit of Sharky's history. Sharky is clearly the odd man out--the one who has gone away and returned. We learn that he has been living Lhainch, County Clare where he was working as a chauffeur for a developer and his wife. Explaining his situation to Ivan, he indicates that his return was necessitated by Richard's recent blindness and indeed, we see him engaged in the domestic, traditionally "wifely" duties of homemaking. Wearing an apron, Sharky prepares Richard's breakfast, helps him with the toilet and offers to bathe him. He is also the object of Richard's dominating, hectoring instructions and sarcastic regard for his newly achieved sobriety: Richard: Hey, check out Johnny Weismuller, off the drink for...what is it, Sharky? Two days? Sharky: What? Richard: How long are you on the dry now? Two days is it? I was just telling Ivan. Sharky is made to seem, in the hard-drinking, masculine world of Richard and Ivan, both feminized and infantilized. The entrance of Nicky, the man who is now married to Sharky's former lover and (we learn) driving Sharky's car, further unmans him. When Nicky and Mr. Lockhart enter and a card game is proposed, the atmosphere is thick with issues of dominance, and a sense of brinksmanship is rife. All of the men claim the innocence of their play: Lockhart: No fear! I'm not a big gambler myself necessarily. To be honest with you I just like the social ...ness and the crack. Ivan: Ah it's a tradition Sharky! It is here that Mr. Lockhart begins to home in on Sharky, asserting to him that he has "seen you on your travels." He cites a time, twenty years ago, when they "were locked up in a cell together. You'd had a bit of a bother the night before...? You were waiting to go up before the judge... We played cards!" And shortly later: Lockhart: I'm surprised you don't know why I'm here. Sharky: Yeah, well I don't. Lockhart: (Disappointed) Ah Sharky... We had a deal. No? The taunting, threatening interplay between the men continues until Lockhart asserts, "I want your soul." Sharky: What? Lockhart: I want your soul. Sharky: What the hell are you talking about? Is this some kind of stupid fucking joke of Nicky's? Lockhart: I'm the son of the morning, Sharky. I'm the snake in the garden. I've come here for your soul this Christmas, and I've been looking for you all fucking day! After this remarkable exchange, Sharky is seized as though by an inner pain while a general hub-bub ensues as the other men, oblivious, set up the table for the card game and organize their drinks and snacks. Act two of the play opens on the men engaged in the card game that continues until the end of the play. What transpires during the course of the evening as the men play hand after hand, is best left to your discovery. I would simply point you to the dynamics among the men: the exchange of dominance: the revelations of their pasts, and the way in which the fortunes of the on-going card game capture interpersonal shifts in their relationships. Key to the contest of the card game is Sharky's fate. He is the man whose life is at stake. Ostensibly, Sharky has returned to home to play caretaker to Richard, but it becomes that Sharky’s needs are more complicated. It is, in fact, Sharky who is in need of care. It is the great gift of the play to offer us a vision of the surprising and deeply compassionate delivery of that care. The play ends, fittingly, with a song entitled “Sweet Little Mystery”—a worthy subtitle for both the play and the story of all of our lives. As in so much of this playwright's work, The Seafarer explores the terrain of our aloneness and the grace (so surprising delivered) of our human connectedness. It is a real pleasure to offer this play to our Steppenwolf audiences. The writing is so assured, the humor and pain so beautifully intertwined (as in life), and the rich character life of the play so perfectly tuned to the abilities of our ensemble. Under the direction of our long-time ensemble member, Randy Arney, and peopled by actors who share a history of over twenty years of work together, we give you The Seafarer, a play that will take you on a journey of great mystery, irreverent humor, and simple grace.