Art is a byproduct of the society that birthed it, as well as a mirror that reflects back on the world.
In the compelling Scena Theatre production of Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” at the H Street Playhouse through May 20, the viewer is struck by how this Faustian tale reflects the political theater and individual sacrifice that is part of daily life under the Capitol Dome.
The play is set in Baldoyle, Ireland, just west of the Howth peninsula, which, according to the production notes, is “the focus of Irish myths and legend.”
The set design is grim and haunting. Dirty, grimy furniture and empty bottles of booze are everywhere. The walls are hung with pictures of soccer fields and kitschy horses. Over the coal heater are two dirty socks. A sad-looking Christmas tree commands another corner.
Along one wall someone has hung a set of animal horns, while against another hangs an underlit picture of Jesus Christ.
The play opens with the old, blind drunkard Richard — played charmingly, if imperfectly, by Joe Palka — springing up from under a pile of dirty clothes, as if rising from a grave. In quick succession, the audience is introduced to a sad group of struggling rummies: Richard’s younger brother Sharky (Eric Lucas), Richard’s drinking buddy Ivan (Brian Mallon) and Sharky’s rival Nicky (David Mitchell).
Each of these men is bruised, soiled, blind or half-blind and/or drunk as the story unfolds. Being Irish, they are quick with a story and a joke. Being addicts, they struggle to excuse their own flaws, while consistently highlighting each other’s faults and enabling their friends’ addictions.
This Christmas Eve is no different — or at least it isn’t until a well-dressed, rather oily gentleman, Mr. Lockhart (David Bryan Jackson), joins them for an evening of drinking and card games.
Those in the audience familiar with the legend of Faust — where a highly ambitious man makes a deal with the devil for his soul — will catch on to what is at stake for this group of rather pathetic drunkards. For those who aren’t, Lockhart is helpfully dressed in red and sits under the horns on the wall for most of his time onstage.
As the play unfolds, only Sharky knows that Lockhart is not just a cheerful, rich man with a drinking problem and a fondness for cards. It is the ignorance of the other players that slowly builds the play’s tension.
During the card game, as Lockhart’s devil begins to explain why he’s come and details some of his own history, time in the play slows down. It deepens as the game — and the night — proceeds.
The ensemble cast is strong overall, although some of the Irish accents slip on occasion, and some of the acting is overwrought.
But the production does what theater is meant to do: keep you leaning forward in your seat, transported.
“The Seafarer” is a richly layered work that suggests humanity’s deep sin isn’t that we sell our souls to fulfill our desires — all of us do at one time or another — but that once we have sacrificed that part of ourselves, we quickly forget the sacrifice was made at all.