The Night Alive at the Jungle Theater

What a rich and wonderful theater experience! The Jungle Theater’s new production, “The Night Alive” by Conor McPherson, will run through December 20, and what an alternative it is to the usual holiday lineup. It will pull you in even while you’re asking yourself, “Why do I care about these people?” Oh, but you will care! Theatrical wizardry, that’s what it is! McPherson brilliantly mines the terrain of fundamental human need, making “small” lives somehow extraordinary.

L-R: Aimee (Sara Richardson), Doc (Patrick Bailey) and Tommy (Stephen Yoakam). Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

L-R: Aimee (Sara Richardson), Doc (Patrick Bailey) and Tommy (Stephen Yoakam). Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Tommy, who is estranged from his wife and teenaged children, lives in a room in his uncle Maurice’s house, picking up odd jobs to sustain himself and his helper, Doc, who sleeps on a cot in the corner when his sister tosses him out of her place. One night, Tommy brings home a girl, Aimee, who he finds beat up and alone on the streets of Dublin.

Pathetically engineered to navigate life, McPherson’s characters tell half-truths to each other and dance to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” which represents a fairly sophisticated level of understanding of life for them. But that’s not the half of it. (Oh, the ambiguities … you’ll be pondering and savoring this for days!)

It’s hard not to think of Beckett or Pinter, or maybe even Albee watching this play. McPherson’s characters may drift sort of carelessly into existentialist potholes, but they don’t stay there for long, bumping over them with an almost childlike acceptance.

They are lost in their struggles that seem both petty in the larger view of things and monumental—life-and-death, even. Teetering between those two unknowables, the play sort of floats just above its own earthiness- the smell of Tommy’s piles of dirty clothes and the ubiquitous dirty dishes in the sink mingle with the hope of love, or at least some chips and a swig of rum shared with others.

In a sense, every day is life and death for these characters, whether the danger is in the form of an abusive boyfriend; personal, overwhelming regret; or the question of having a safe place to sleep. But in Tommy’s world, every day has the possibility for beauty, too. His disorganized and dirty apartment (an accurate picture of his life) is also a place where unimagined joy just might occur. “You only get a few goes, Tommy. At life. You don’t get endless goes. Two three goes maybe. When you hit the right groove you’ll click right in there,” Maurice tells him. There’s your story. Wow.

Stephen Yoakim as Tommy is completely unaffected in his portrayal and so seemingly unaware of Tommy’s hopeless prospects – none of this pointing a finger at the character, so to speak, to make sure we didn’t miss any of his shortcomings. Tommy just lived and breathed on that stage, and it was a strangely beautiful thing.

Tommy’s Uncle Maurice, played by Martin Ruben, lives upstairs, kept alive it would seem, by berating Tommy about the noise in his room, not paying his share of the electricity, stealing from his garden – anything, really. It’s what keeps him going. Well, that and drinking. Playing opposite a character like Tommy is its own special technique and Ruben fully grasps the patience with which the playwright unearths Ruben’s buried anxiety.

Sara Richardson as Aimee shows exquisite restraint, too, in letting Aimee’s demons surface by degrees. We know there is something very wrong, and we can make some logical guesses, but Richardson keeps her performance alluringly simple, as if Aimee herself sees no more than the audience can see.

A very tall and imposing Tyson Forbes is frankly terrifying as Aimee’s violent boyfriend, Kenneth. Tommy stands him down with a strength (and naiveté?) that’s breathtaking, but Forbes’ psychopathic demeanor never cracks. Heart-thumping!

But in spite of the consistently powerful performances, Patrick Bailey as Doc stole the show for me. He was absolute perfection in this role. Somewhere between special needs and the friend Tommy desperately needs, Doc’s dependency is never burdensome to the play. In fact, his character brings a welcome rosy glow with his entrances, just like the Christmas lights he fixes, which give the dreary room a cheerful tint. Doc’s response to adversity—even violence—is so straight up, as Bailey interprets him, that you feel like you know everything about him that matters. I can’t stop thinking about him!

Director Joel Sass may play up the laughs a bit—the production may not be as dark as others might interpret it—but it absolutely works. In fact, the funnier it gets, the more poignant the tears. This is not your traditional holiday show; it’s much better. Yes, you should go.

 

 

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