On the page, Conor McPherson's latest descent into the boozy depths is a depressing read. "Dublin Carol" lacks the surreal tone of "St. Nicholas" and the atmosphere of "The Weir". Like the latter script, however, it plays one character's story against another and once again draws on indomitable spirit as a last resort. The Nora Theatre's current production, which has the honor of opening the season at Boston Playwright's, also draws on the subtle talents of an actor uniquely suited to the task. Richard McElvain won awards for his bravura performance in "St. Nicholas" for Sugan--later repeated under the aegis of the ART--and was an important part of the New Rep's award-winning production of "The Weir". Hes also the longtime director of reknowned storyteller, Jay OCallahan. This time he's managed to make John Plunkett, a sad-sack undertaker and chronic drunk into a figure of some stature.
The devil most certainly in the details. Directed by Janet Morrison, Head of Acting at Brandeis, McElvain has crafted a subtle portrayal of a man hampered by alcohol, hanging onto his life. His boss, who saved him from the depths, is in the hospital, it's Dec. 24th, and there's nothing but a day without a funeral to look forward to. To show a man fighting for control of his miserable existence, this performance is crafted from moment to moment. None of the props suggesting the clutter of his back office is there merely for decoration--including the shoddy seasonal display.
Both the other characters, Mary, his grown daughter, played by Devon Jencks, and Mark, his temporary assistant, played by Bryce Pinkham have been given similar attention, though not at McElvain's level of concentration. Jencks, who was appealing as Maria in "Twelfth Night" at the Publick this summer, gets her Irish up and lays into her old man. It seems the wife he left years ago is dying of cancer and she wants him to do the funeral. Their exchanges are perhaps the most intense of the play, as Plunkett's plainly not up to the task. This middle scene of the three that make up this classically-constructed ninety minute piece has the most unanswered questions, as McPherson no doubt intended.
The first and third scenes, between John and Mark, the old sot and a young guy feeling his way towards no particular goal, are the more varied. In the first, just after Mark's first funeral, in the rain that morning, the older man tries to welcome the boy to his somber profession, over a cuppa and biscuits. These two lost souls, named for two of the Evangelists, could be father and son. We learn in the second scene that John's actual son is a layabout living in England fixing motorbikes.
In the third scene, Mark returns for his pay to find the old fella passed out, having finished a full bottle after his daughter left. John senses Mark's agitation, which turns out to be a personal crisis arising from his having dumped his stewardess girlfriend that afternoon. Pinkham, who was convincing in the first scene, but more of a sounding board for McElvain, turns in a fine measured performance as the emotions of the breakup shake him. Plunkett has no easy answers for the boy, but gets him busy helping to take down the seasonal decor. After Mark leaves with his pay--out of John's pocket since Plunkett never made it to the bank--in a moment expanded from the original text, John unpacks the tiny fake tree and a few other items, then finds an angel and hangs it back up. That seemed right. He could undo something.
The show was done an a tight realistic thrust set by Eric Levenson who's currently working on the settings for the musical of "A Man of No Importance", Sugan and Speakeasy's joint venture opening soon at the BCA. David Wilson's sound and lights helped keep the focus with a bit of rain, some mournful tunes, and subdued interior lighting. Costumer Jacqueline Dalley has found the right wardrobe for all three characters, particularly McElvain's aging three-piece suit. Like the acting and direction, everything was in place, as the main character tried to hold his life together on Xmas eve, much as the author has confessed that he had to just after he finished this play. Nora which may be able to move into more permenant digs in Cambridge, not quite a decade after M.I.T. promised them space in a new building, has once again proven their place as premiere producers of high-class drama.
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