The Seafarer at the Milwaukee Rep
It’s not much of a spoiler alert to name the stranger who enters the shabby Dublin home of the Harkin brothers on Christmas Eve. But if you really want to walk cold into the current rambunctious and philosophical production of The Seafarer, currently playing at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater and featuring five of the best actors in Milwaukee, then stop here. I’ll just say go see it.
Especially when he knows everything about you and can’t stand the sound of beautiful music.
McPherson’s 2006 play was a hit at the National Theater in London and has since made the rounds at the likes of the Booth Theater on Broadway and Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago (who lent some props to The Rep for this staging). It’s not the first tale about confronting your demon and then trying to redeem or trick your way out of obligations, but it is certainly an engaging one.
The story — set in a clever bit of deep staging if you sit in section 1 but still immersive audibly in the other sections — takes place in the shambled home of the recently blinded drunkard Richard, played perfectly by James Pickering. The veteran actor commands the center of the stage with a garrulous and barreling voice.
Richard is tended to by his younger brother Sharky (Lee E. Ernst), who’s just returned from a failed job opportunity and has quit drinking. The morning after yet another bender, Richard wakes up on the couch and down the stairs from a storage room lumbers sad-sack Ivan (Christopher Tarjan), who lends mostly comic relief in his role. The men are soon joined by Nicky (Jonathan Gillard Daly), a friend of Richard but enemy of Sharky. Nicky’s is kind of a thankless role predicated by the script to introduce the devil — fine, there I’ve said it — but Daly makes what he can of it.
Smoots holds that coveted role and he plays it dangerous and low-key, like that guy you meet at a party who knows he’s hot stuff and exudes a smug charm. There are no women, so he doesn’t have to play sexy. Mr. Lockhart, instead, is a man who has come to collect his due from another man who appears to be trying to take a righteous path and needs convincing to give it up.
McPherson directed the London and Broadway productions of The Seafarer, and while I haven’t seen them I would imagine that Ben Barnes’ staging didn’t need much adjusting. The pacing is perfect, and though the show runs long at 2 hours and 26 minutes, it needs every moment.
In The Seafarer, with a title alluding to a 10th century elegy and a plot inspired by the Irish version of the Hellfire Club, the characters do little to change but still have an arc to fulfill. The actors entertain and frighten, the stage is as dense and desperate as the players, and old Beelzebub even laments his own fall from heaven. As he drunkenly stumbles to pour another glass, Mr. Lockhart states “I’m not used to drinking this much.” Sharky retorts “Well, welcome to our house.”
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents The Seafarer at the Jay and Patti Baker theater complex in downtown Milwaukee now through March 7. Tickets can be purchased on their website linked above or by calling 414-224-9490.