BWW Reviews: THE NIGHT ALIVE Is a Devastating Story of Love and Hope at Third Rail
Sometimes my response to a play is so personal and visceral that I find it hard to write about it here. Conor McPherson's The Night Alive doesn't really have any direct connection to my life here in Portland, and yet I felt as if the playwright were speaking directly to me, as if he'd been viewing my personal experience through a video camera or something, and yet I think the audience around me felt the same way. We all feel at times like Tommy, McPherson's protagonist, who keeps muddling through his life even though he's not sure why. We all feel lost. And The Night Alive captures that feeling brilliantly.
Tommy's an Irishman in his middle years. He's living apart from his wife and teenage children and has been for a while. He shares a room in his uncle's house - what the Brits call a "bed-sit" - with Doc, a slow-witted man who accompanies Tommy as they work a variety of odd jobs. The room is a pigsty, even after Tommy attempts to clean it up. Uncle Maurice doesn't approve of anything Tommy does and keeps laying down rules Tommy doesn't especially want to adhere to.
The play opens as Tommy escorts Aimee into his room. She's a young woman whose nose is bleeding from a fight with a man she doesn't want to identify. She reluctantly accepts Tommy's offer of hospitality, and they begin an uneasy cohabitation. Tommy decides he loves Aimee and wants her to stay, but Aimee is a prostitute (at least sometimes) and expects pay for services rendered. She doesn't want to stay with him, but she isn't in any hurry to leave until Kenneth - the man responsible for her bloody nose - comes back and threatens all of them.
The play is uproarious throughout, McPherson finding ways to make the characters' desperation funny, but underneath there's a deep well of sadness that finally explodes toward the end, when Tommy wants to escape his mundane existence with Aimee by his side, yet finds himself pulled back into the same old rut he's been stuck in. McPherson does offer a ray of hope at the end, but it's a quiet one, with no assurances that it's going to work out for anyone.
Director Scott Yarbrough takes an interesting approach to The Night Alive by slowing down the tempo. It's a long one-act (about an hour and forty-five minutes), and the dialogue scenes are mostly banter, but he doesn't push the actors to rush through at sitcom tempo. The scenes play out in a realistic way, with pauses and breaks at a human tempo. The scenes end gradually, with the actors beginning to move props around and a gradual fading to black. (Sound designer Scott Thorson plugs in a few too many indie-pop tunes, however, all of them sounding awfully similar.) The set is a marvel, a cramped one-room examination of Tommy's mess of a life stuffed into the relatively small playing space at CoHo, and designer Tal Sanders finds just the right details to dramatize Tommy's existence for us without being too obvious.
The cast is wonderful throughout. Michael O'Connell gets every laugh he's entitled to as the dimwitted Doc, but never lets the character become a caricature; we see that Doc has had a rough time of his own, and he longs for a connection to someone, no matter whom. Rolland Walsh's psychopathic Kenneth seems amused by his own propensity for violence, enjoying the feeling of having the upper hand. Del Lewis finds depth and warmth in the stodgy Maurice, particularly in a drunk scene where he shows his heart. And Christina Holtom's Aimee is a deep well of sadness, quietly and very gradually revealing the tenderness underneath.
But the evening belongs to Damon Kupper as Tommy. He's rarely offstage, and loaded down with long speeches, but Kupper never loses his cool. The accent is spot-on (at least to my half-Irish ears) but that's the least of it. He shows us the slow opening up of his character's heart, long buried under neglect and mistreatment, and when Tommy's dreams are dashed, Kupper just quietly falls apart. He's resourceful in the physically demanding fight scenes, funny when needed, and capable of breaking your heart.
The Night Alive lets one of its characters talk about black holes. If you're anywhere nearby, you get sucked in. Life can be like that sometimes, and sometimes that hurts. But great plays can also suck you in and make you think about life and love and everything else that matters. This production will do that for you, and more.