Chicago Theater Review: THE NIGHT ALIVE (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 28, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

LOVE AS A MOVEABLE FEAST

Conor McPherson’s plays are so rooted in the characters that plot is really revelation. With unforced warmth, he captures loneliness in the act of self-effacement and love as the best way to prove we’re really here. Steppenwolf Theatre’s fall offering The Night Alive is no nocturne—it’s typically gritty, with self-inventing characters blessed with more hope than brains. However far you’re seated from the stage, you can walk inside this play.

Tim Hopper and Francis Guinan in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of The Night Alive by Conor McPherson, directed by Henry Wishcamper. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Sweetly shaped by Henry Wishcamper on Todd Rosenthal’s wonderfully detailed, cutaway set of a dilapidated Georgian manse near Dublin’s Phoenix Park, this 100-minute tale of a very unlikely affinity happily expands the definition of love—an activity that should be as inclusive as it is legal. It’s a wise play that’s always in the present tense, doesn’t try to explain too much, and considerately lets us imagine all the backstories we need to in order to fully embrace what the author has to share.

Francis Guinan in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of The Night Alive by Conor McPherson, directed by Henry Wishcamper. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

McPherson’s sad-faced survivor is Tommy (Francis Guinan, bustling about beautifully), a marginal man, separated from his wife and not all that attached to his teenage kids. Tommy is content to plod through life with the occasional Guinness at the corner pub or play-fighting with Morris (M. Emmett Walsh, twinkling and fuming), the upstairs landlord and uncle who raised Tommy when he needed a father figure.

Francis Guinan, Tim Hopper and Helen Sadler in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of The Night Alive by Conor McPherson, directed by Henry Wishcamper. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Much like the improbable friendship in Of Mice and Men, Tommy’s dependent chum is slow-witted, ever-dreaming Doc (Tim Hopper, stunningly transformed), a strange soul who seems to be defined by his dreams. Ever ready to bail out a buddy with an odd job or ten, Tommy assists this needy, impecunious loper with funding and pep talks for Doc’s itinerant cigar sales and whatever other stay-poor-schemes he fantasizes.

M. Emmet Walsh in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of The Night Alive by Conor McPherson, directed by Henry Wishcamper. Photo by Michael Brosilow.So it’s not surprising that Tommy befriends a young girl (Helen Sadler, conveying all the vulnerability of the seemingly hopeless). He rescues hard-luck Aimee from a supposed boyfriend who nearly broke her nose. With reflexive kindness, Irish hospitality, and no expectation of reward, he takes in this surrogate daughter when he learns she’s homeless.

That’s what makes the rest of the play rewarding, if only because unintentional consequences can be just as wonderful as not. Still, it wouldn’t be a McPherson play without a touch of evil—and that menace turns out to be scarier and more threatening, especially to a live audience, than the manufactured malevolence in all the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Streets, or Halloween films combined. Suffice is to say that any accidental or predestined happiness that the characters stumble upon is very much put in play by the arrival of a character named Kenneth (Dan Walker as your worst nightmare). If someone can teem with terror, Walker can do it in his sleep.

Francis Guinan, M. Emmet Walsh and Tim Hopper in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of The Night Alive by Conor McPherson, directed by Henry Wishcamper. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Laudably indeed, Wishcamper’s surefooted direction manages to balance the pluses in the plot against the fearsome dread that invades “the night alive” (whose other side is dreaming). Equally marvelous is how this one-act captivates its audience. You could hear the proverbial pin drop (or audience members murmuring or rustling programs—but don’t get me started).

Francis Guinan and Tim Hopper in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of The Night Alive by Conor McPherson, directed by Henry Wishcamper. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Everything works (except Walsh’s curious lack of an Irish accent). What gleams, as it did in Shining City, The Weir, The Seafarer, or Dublin’s Carol, is McPherson’s depiction of a kind of dynamic decency. This stranger’s kindness all but stalks the play. And it’s no passive benevolence but the kind of kneejerk goodness that makes Tommy a troubled treasure who you believe from start to end. But, wow!, how McPherson tests his unwitting saints! Happily, no evil deed goes unpunished either.

Helen Sadler and Francis Guinan in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of The Night Alive by Conor McPherson, directed by Henry Wishcamper. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Dan Waller in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of The Night Alive by Conor McPherson, directed by Henry Wishcamper. Photo by Michael Brosilow.The Night Alive
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre
1650 N Halsted St.
scheduled to end on November 16, 2014
for tickets, call 312-335-1650
or visit www.steppenwolf.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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