There’s a strong temptation to read hidden meanings into The Night Alive, the play by Conor McPherson now playing at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater in a riveting production directed by Stephen Hamilton. What’s presented onstage is a group of struggling, broken misfits, living in absolute squalor, mostly in a single wretched room. These are people who are by and large incapable of coping with the world.
But sprinkled throughout this sometimes funny, sometimes shockingly violent play are tantalizing hints of redemption—a vision of paradise almost in reach. Those with a weakness for allegory will find plenty of encouragement to try to piece together the story behind the story. Happily, McPherson has the subtlety and skill to leave this piecing together to the audience—he’s secure enough in his powers to leave many questions unanswered.
The principal occupant of the squalid room is middle-aged Tommy (Kevin O’Rourke), who rents it from his disapproving Uncle Maurice (Tuck Milligan). Clothes litter the floor, food consists of beans heated on a hot plate and takeaway french fries, and posters advertising travel to Finland serve for decoration. When the dim-witted, irrepressible Doc (J. Stephen Brantley) arrives with freshly dug turnips and potatoes—poached from Uncle Maurice’s garden—Tommy refuses to cook them. He says he fears getting caught, but we learn that Tommy is often mistrustful of the freely given gifts that surround him. He’s more likely to pin his hopes on striking it rich in the lottery or escaping to Finland—his imagined Eden.
And yet Tommy can be a caring man. In the opening scene, he arrives home with Aimee (Molly Carden), whom he has rescued from a brute and who is bleeding profusely. He tends to her and demonstrates a resourcefulness—an energetic response that he has apparently been unable to summon in his dealings with his own teenage children, one of whom seems to be floundering. He tries to make up for neglecting the obligations of his life—the need to tend to things and take care of his children—by healing the damaged Aimee.
Violence arrives in the form of Kenneth (Rob DiSario), a personification of pure, writhing evil in search of a handy target. It’s Doc’s unhappy lot to encounter Kenneth alone, and what results is a scene that is not easy to watch. (Guild Hall is presenting The Night Alive in the round, so this harrowing scene takes places only a few feet away from the audience.) The fight scenes are especially vivid and believable even at close range, a testament to the work of fight director Dan Renkin.
The performances are strong throughout this layered play. DiSario brings a convincing menace to his role, with his left hand twitching as he cruelly taunts his victim Doc, whose vulnerability is perfectly captured by Brantley. Milligan, a regular at the John Drew, plays Uncle Maurice’s worn-out crotchetiness well. Meanwhile, O’Rourke and Carden deliver what amounts to a tour de force, especially O’Rourke, who is onstage for the majority of the evening.
Stephen Hamilton’s new production of Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive opened at Guild Hall in East Hampton last week. The play runs through May 22.