There isn’t a contemporary playwright who writes ghost stories as poetically as Irishman Conor McPherson.
It’s been fascinating to watch his progression from an early work like The Weir (1997), in which the characters exchange ghost tales in a bar as they vie for the attention of the one woman in the room, to The Night Alive (2013), in which the spirits seem knottily mirrored in the lonely, outcast characters.
The beauty of The Night Alive, receiving its area premiere at Undermain Theatre in what is the best work by young director Dylan Key so far, is that it leaves the audience wondering if at least one of the main characters is indeed not of this world.
It’s an odd and alluring love story, at once sad and hopeful.
Tommy (Bruce DuBose) is a 50-something man living in a pigsty of an apartment in the basement of a house owned by Maurice (Gordon Fox, the only actor who doesn’t seem to attempt a Dublin accent, which is distracting). The play opens as Tommy brings a woman in her late 20s, Aimee (Katherine Bourne), who has a bloodied face from an earlier encounter.
He cleans her up and offers her a place to stay. Soon enough, we meet Tommy’s friend and associate in their shady, unnamed business, Doc (Scott Latham); and later, Aimee’s heinous boyfriend Kenneth (Marcus Stimac).
The influence of McPherson’s heroes, including Eugene O’Neill and Harold Pinter, is clear. There’s not much action happening in this claustrophobic room, but there are vivid characters about whom we learn volumes. For instance, Tommy and Doc have both been shunned by family, and after getting to know these middle-aged losers, it’s easy to guess why.
That doesn’t make us not love the cluelessly optimistic Doc, especially in Latham’s exuberant, goofy characterization. Although there isn’t much hope with this bunch, and the whole production is appropriately dark (lighting design by Steve Woods; scenic by Robert Winn, who fulfills McPherson’s stage directions of “cluttered and messy”), Key and his cast find the uncomfortable humor in the script.
It’s surprisingly funny, in fact. One of the best scenes comes when Tommy, Doc and Aimee dance wildly to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, an infectious protest song. It’s as if they are protesting their own futures, which would appear to not be sunny.
McPherson loves the character of the devil, as in The Seafarer (Fort Worth theatergoers might remember Stage West’s excellent 2009 production of that play), and he goes there in Night Alive, too. At Undermain this character is fittingly menacing (good work by costumer Claudia Stephens and whoever’s responsible for the subtle makeup design).
Tommy is aimless and unfazed about a situation we see as bleak, but DuBose still finds some urgency, if fueled by desperation, in the character, especially after meeting Aimee. Bourne keeps a sense of mystery in her character, which is important when we get to the end and a final, silent moment between her and Tommy.
Given an earlier bit of dialogue about her from Doc, the question of who she is becomes a bigger enigma — but there’s no doubt that these characters are cosmically connected.
McPherson has the lights go dark at that point, and that happens at Undermain, too, although Key adds in an additional, spirit-lifting moment as they walk toward an evocation of the play’s title.