An alcoholic’s life never takes him farther than within reach of his booze. The set of Conor McPherson’s new drama, The Seafarer, playing at the Steppenwolf  in Chicago from December 4 to February 8, shows this vividly. In the living room is a tattered chair and card table used for eating, covered in debris from the previous night’s drinking. When the main character Sharky first enters, picking up empty bottles with brisk annoyance, the confinement and his monotony of his life are immediately recognizable. The day is starting like all of Sharky’s before, struggling with sobriety as his aging brother Richard avoids it at all costs.
Yet there are hints that this day will be different. It is Christmas Eve in the Irish hinterland, and McPherson summons all the folkloric possibilities this time and place provide, devising a plot in which Sharky comes across the devil himself. Disguised as a stranger named Mr. Lockhart in a slick brown suit, the devil interrupts Sharky’s friendly card game to announce he’s come to procure his soul for having killed a man years earlier.
Lockhart’s abrupt arrival precipitates a visceral dramatic action that has been absent from McPherson’s earlier work. If The Seafarer followed the course of McPherson’s other  barroom  dramas, Sharky would have come to grips with his self-loathing in the course of storytelling and drinking, at turns elucidating and obfuscating his inner conflict, his Irish accent never letting on if he’s sincere or ironic. McPherson has often expressed his admiration for the American playwright David Mamet. Yet as much as Sharky and his brother may drink and curse, they are not the alpha males of Glengarry Glenn Ross or Speed-The-Plow. Even when McPherson’s Irishmen argue—sometimes coming close to fisticuffs—they are always on the defensive, deflecting what they perceive as an attack. In Sharky’s case, it is an effort to avoid the shame he feels for drinking, and the dance he performs around his guilt is what makes the first half of the play so watchable. It is only in response to the devil’s confrontation that Sharky plumbs the depth of his self-loathing and emerges redeemed.
The Seafarer’s emphasis on redemption compelled Ben Brantley of The New York Times to call it  a “thinking person’s alternative to It’s a Wonderful Life” when the play first opened on Broadway after its debut in London in 2007. Previously, McPherson had only gestured to otherworldly phenomena in plays such as The Weir and Shining City, telling stories of individuals haunted by the ghosts of deceased loved ones. As intimate and poetic as these explorations of grief were, both plays left audiences more haunted by the characters’ suffering than by any notion of ghosts. The supernatural is at the periphery, creating an atmosphere, but the world of these plays is no different from our own. In The Seafarer, by contrast, the supernatural strides onto the stage. In order to be moved by Sharky’s struggle, the audience must believe in the devil’s existence—literally embodied or an apparition—but as a reality just the same. Yet what makes The Seafarer suitable for the thinking person is its complicated portrait of the devil himself.
The play is premised on an 18th-century Irish folklore about the devil arriving to a gentleman’s club. “Someone drops a card,” McPherson explains, “when he bends down to pick it up, he notices the stranger’s cloven foot. At that, the stranger disappears. Just when the story’s getting good, it ends.” McPherson filled in the blanks, but his portrait of the devil is far less obscure than the legend’s. Its true inspiration comes from an ancient poem about a person alone at sea. “I thought the ultimate alienation was actually to imagine being the devil,” McPherson explained in an interview with the Lowry, a theater in Manchester, England. “The Seafarer, in some way, is the devil longing to be with God and longing to be loved by human beings, longing to just connect without always just destroying everything he touches.”
It is because of his own loneliness and self-loathing that the devil recognizes so well Sharky’s despair. Catholics believe despair is the sin against hope, a loss of belief in God’s grace and forgiveness. In McPherson’s world, Sharky despairs because he is unable to forgive himself enough to accept love. When Lockhart describes hell as a cold, small coffin, he’s exacting a Dante-esque punishment for Sharky’s fearful self-hate. Lockhart explains, it’s a cold day in the city, and “you’re hoping you won’t meet anyone you know because of the blistering shame that rises up in your face and you have to turn away because you know you can’t even deal with the thought that someone might love you, because of all the pain you always cause. Well that’s a fraction of the self-loathing you may feel in hell.” After the play ends, an audience member who never before thought twice about hell, could leave and never think twice about it again. But it would be difficult for him to forget McPherson’s portrait of acute despair, the chilling idea of being unable to receive and give love.
Set against the bleakness of the play’s climax, its uplifting resolution can be gratifying—even if it arrives abruptly. There is a God finally, but he doesn’t stride onto stage like the devil does. He’s gestured to, as a divine intervention. The scene is not the finest example of McPherson’s writing, perhaps because it tries so hard to be dramatic. Yet once McPherson frees himself of tying up loose ends, he returns to his strengths. He delivers a final exchange between Sharky and his brother that is bittersweet, undoing some of the previous scene’s neat resolution. As the dawn light breaks through the window, Richard rallies Sharky to attend Christmas morning Mass with him. In a scene subtly acted by David Morse in the Broadway production, Sharky retreats toward his old self; he is relieved to be alive but is still unconvinced he deserves to be. In response, Richard yells, “We all know you’re an alcoholic and your life is in tatters and you’re an awful fucking gobshite. But you know what? You’re alive, aren’t you?” Richard’s line gets a big laugh from the audience, but it’s more a moment of truth than of comic relief. Richard’s words finally free Sharky of his refusal to forgive himself. He goes to Mass with his brother—not with a convert’s zeal, but with a fragile acceptance that even he is worth being redeemed.
The conclusion is appropriate for a playwright who sees his writing as an exploration rather than an exposition of what he believes. Given his play’s strong religious undertones, interviewers often ask McPherson about his personal beliefs. McPherson, who was raised Catholic but has not practiced since childhood, usually gives answers that are vague and express a kind of awesome uncertainty. “You’ve got to face the mystery of the universe, the vast ignorance,” he explained in his interview with the Lowry. “We are a tiny speck in this huge cosmos, and we don’t even know how it started, where we come from or why there is space and time.” The most affirmation he gets is from writing his plays. He explained, “All my plays are a picture of me trying to find out what’s the real energy or force in my life. You dig at it until you reach some point where you make peace with yourself.”
Pictured above: Tom Irwin as Mr. Lockhart and Francis Guinan as Sharky in the Steppenwolf production of "The Seafarer." Photo by Michael Brosilow.