DUBLIN CAROL Steppenwolf Theatre Company
If ever a play deserved to be called sobering, Dublin Carol is it. Conor McPherson's moving drama—receiving its Chicago premiere in a powerfully acted Steppenwolf production directed by Amy Morton—is a candid close-up of a man for whom every moment is a test: how many more nips of booze can he have before the demons take over and the bingeing begins?
The play, which debuted at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2000, eschews the histrionics of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or The Boys in the Band, in which all-night drinking sessions fuel explosions of verbal and physical violence. Very little happens here. As in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross—the work that inspired McPherson to become a playwright when he read it in college—the words are the action. What matters most is the emotional turmoil raging beneath its long confessional monologues and somber, sometimes salty storytelling.
The focus of the play is John Plunkett, a middle-aged undertaker's assistant in present-day Dublin. It's Christmas Eve, and John has just presided over a funeral. Since his employer is sick in the hospital, John has had to take charge of the business—not an easy thing for a guy who has problems handling responsibility—so he's hired his boss's 20-year-old nephew, Mark (Stephen Louis Grush), to lend a hand graveside. Returning to a shabby office tricked out with a few tacky holiday decorations, John offers Mark tea while pouring whiskey for himself. "I'm old. I'll die if I don't drink this," he says jokingly.
But as the two men unwind, John's rambling conversation turns serious, and the devastating role liquor has played in his life becomes increasingly obvious. Reflecting on the importance of his work ("You're trying to afford people a bit of respect in their last little bit with their family") he recalls how Mark's uncle, significantly named Noel, saved his life by giving him a job when he was on the skids.
The information that John's monologues convey is important, but so is their underlying purpose: as long as he can converse rationally with another person, he may be able to keep his demons at bay.
Later, John has another visitor—his daughter, Mary (Nicole Wiesner), now in her 30s, from whom John has been estranged since he abandoned his family years earlier. John's encounter with Mary is more focused than his chat with Mark: she has come to persuade her father to visit his wife, who is dying of cancer. The thought of confronting his failed marriage dredges up more memories than John can face without liquid courage. As he and Mary trade recriminations and apologies, John again wanders perilously close to the abyss he describes with plainspoken eloquence: "Boredom. Loneliness. A feeling of basically being out of step with everybody else. Fear. Anxiety. Tension. And, of course, a disposition of generally liking the whole fucking thing of drinking till you pass out."
McPherson wrote Dublin Carol when he was 28 and, by his own admission, an active alcoholic. Not till after he was hospitalized with a life-threatening case of pancreatitis did he sober up. So the play offers an informed perspective on what drives John to drink: low self-esteem and a sense of guilt, the search for short-term highs to cure a long-term depression.
A show this dark might be a hard sell at the box office without a name actor. The Steppenwolf staging has one: William Petersen of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, making his first onstage appearance here in ten years. The young actor-athlete—remembered for viscerally exciting performances in such productions as In the Belly of the Beast, The Tooth of Crime, and Once in Doubt—has become a jowly graybeard, but lost none of his chops. Petersen's deep connection to the text and compact, economic movement perfectly convey a man whose cautious demeanor hides an endless inner struggle.
Dublin Carol is hardly a cheerful way to kick off the winter holidays. But it's a brave and appropriate offering for a season whose emphasis on festivities and family reunions can trigger depression, painful revelations, and alcohol abuse. As the title suggests, it owes something to Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Both works are about a lonely man trapped in a psychological prison of his own making. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, John receives Christmas visitors who force him to review his life and his relationships to those around him. Mark, who is wrestling with his commitment to his girlfriend, reminds John of his own idealistic, callow younger self; Mary, torn between love and hate for her father, represents all he has lost. But Dublin Carol ends before John has to confront what Scrooge finally faces—the terror of death, in the form of the dying wife his daughter wants him to visit. Will John be able to make the final courageous gesture that might put his anguish to rest? McPherson leaves us uncertain but hopeful.v