The intriguing plays by the esteemed Irish playwright Conor McPherson often inspire one to contemplate life from a different perspective. And the current production of his The Night Alive, now at Dobama Theatre, is no exception.
For instance: It occurs that everyone has the opportunity to live in either heaven or hell, depending on which facts in their life they focus on, and how they construct the narrative of their lives. Concentrate on these facts over here, and your life seems absolutely wonderful. But if you decide to be preoccupied with the other facts over there, it would seem you're living a waking nightmare. So where do you choose live?
Those kinds of philosophical musings are generated in a play that has no intellectual trappings whatsoever. By the look of the interior of the house where Tommy lives, it would seem he's given in to despondency, as it is littered with clothes, dog biscuits posing as snack crackers, and other random detritus. He is mooching this downstairs flat in Dublin from his uncle Maurice, an older man who years before raised Tommy with Maurice's now-deceased wife.
But right from the start, we see another aspect of Tommy as he brings a battered young prostitute, Aimee, into his home. She was just beaten by her boyfriend Kenneth and she needs a place to recover. Soon she and Tommy begin to hit it off, as Tommy chats with his slow-witted pal Doc, who always seems to show up, usually after tumbling ass over teakettle on his way to the front door.
This 110-minute one act meanders in a deceptively simple manner for quite a while, as Tommy and Doc chat about the banal details of their lives. Although he's processing things "five to seven seconds behind everyone else," Doc doesn't totally trust Tommy, insisting he get paid in cash for helping Tommy with the odd jobs they do.
In one of the funniest moments in the darkly amusing play, Doc reads aloud from a cheap book he bought titled, "How to Survive Life-Threatening Situations." The advice for surviving a gun attack: "Move away." That helpful tip embodies much of the faint hope that exists for the characters. But the critical truth is that there is hope, dim though it may be, if only they can find it.
That road to something better is more problematical when the abstract fight between good and evil becomes real — embodied in the fearsome appearance of Kenneth, who has followed Aimee back to Tommy's place. And what ensues after that point serves to bring McPherson's thoughts about the choices we make into sharp relief.
Under the intelligent and specific direction of Leighann DeLorenzo, the immensely talented five-person cast does this material proud. Joel Hammer strikes a deft balance between a loser at the end of his tether and a man who still has honorable and even noble impulses. His gentle joshing with Doc and his tender care of the abused Aimee counter his baser instincts, making the audience pay attention as his character evolves.
In two roles that carry more weight than might be apparent, Anjanette Hall as Aimee and Robert Hawkes as Maurice add the grace notes that flesh out McPherson's story of interconnected lives. Hall's Aimee seems almost entirely hollowed out by her existence, and yet she finds moments of transcendence. And Hawkes, while not on stage long, uses Maurice's plainspoken language to highlight the decisions that Tommy has made, and is making.
As Doc, the quietly amusing David Peacock is simply a marvel, settling into Tommy's couch like a bag of old laundry and using small gestures and facial expressions to convey this man's slightly tweaked view of the world. He is a naïf with a will of iron, and he knows how to allow himself to be transported. Indeed, when he, Tommy and Aimee all dance to the sounds of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On?' it's his dance that feels most freeing.
In the role that turns the entire play in a new direction, Val Kozlenko is thoroughly terrifying as Kenneth, creating exactly the right presence for the devil that appears unbidden from the dark.
This Dobama production offers ensemble acting at the highest level, which is a huge tribute since the director and actors must do battle with the theater's huge stage. The playing space is (as it has always been) simply too big and clumsy, and it makes one weep for the non-existent options that scenic designer Cameron Caley Michalak is offered. If only they could go back and design an open theater space with moveable seating units, so designers could shape the space to fit the show, and not the opposite.
That aside, The Night Alive is most certainly ablaze with fine performances and an ending that will test your imagination. A fitting end to a play that teases your mind throughout.