The Actors Theatre Playhouse (ATP) celebrates its 40th season in West Chesterfield beginning Sept. 10 with a Main Stage production of Conor McPherson’s lyrical comedy, The Seafarer.
Performances are on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. The Seafarer was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play when it debuted in London in 2006 and for multiple Tony Awards when it subsequently moved to New York City.
Set on Christmas Eve in a Dublin suburb, The Seafarer concerns two brothers, Richard and Sharky, irritatingly tossed together once again through their alcoholic adventures and financial misfortunes. As Sharkey tries to remain sober for Christmas Week, he must contend with his hard-drinking, recently blinded and difficult brother, along with his own troubled conscience and inability to keep a job.
The situation is made more complicated when several friends arrive along with a Mysterious Stranger to join in the ritualistic annual poker game. With its Faustian overtones and delightful Irish banter, the play is “devilishly wicked,” as director Sam Pilo says.
“It’s an Irish ballad about love and family, friendship and failure, alcohol and ghost stories, raucous laughter and fiery tempers, redemption and the power of sacrifice....and while you’re at it, toss in survival and self-respect. Only the Irish can have so much fun pulling themselves apart and putting themselves back together.”
Five years ago, ATP presented The Seafarer as a staged reading. Last year the company decided to revisit the play “and we have been pecking away at this piece delightfully ever since,” as Pilo puts it. “It’s a script that keeps on giving because Conor McPherson writes for actors as few others do. Everything is filled with meaning and reverberations. He tosses the pebble in the pond and then plays endlessly with all the ripples.”
The cast includes Bob Gruen as Richard and Greg Lesch as Sharky, both of whom have been part of the theater company for several decades. Jim Bombicino as Nicky and Dan Patterson as Mr. Lockhart also have been longtime actors with the company. Ray Mahoney as Ivan is a relative newcomer “who fits in like he’s been here forever,” Pilo says.
“You really do get to be like family,” Gruen says of acting with ATP, which he joined in 1999. “Theater involves such trust and it’s good to know your fellow actors have your back. And ATP is always looking for new quirky plays and not just dusting off old chestnuts that have been done forever.”
Bombicino, who first got to know ATP in the 1970s when he attended performances at the Latchis Hotel Ballroom, says he agrees.
“I’m excited about being in the cast,” he says. “The play has all the components an audience looks for: drama, mystery, intrigue, humor, and complex, interesting characters. And the quality of ATP plays has remained consistently high and varied. Productions are professional in quality and they nurture audiences with fare that appeals to a variety of tastes. The 40th season is a testament to that effort.”
Pilo, a founder of the Actors Theatre, holds an undergraduate degree in Dramatic Literature and a master’s degree in Production, apprenticing at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York City where he says he “got to stick my nose into every aspect of theater development, production and directing. Best thing that could have happened.”
So, it’s no wonder, he says, that the Actors Theater is based on “a deep appreciation of scripts we consider literary, and a love of a process based on lots of time and table work to study script analysis, story development, character history, and exploring themes for their social significance. It has to reverberate for us, as good literature does, and it has to reverberate for our audience. After forty years we still search year-round for those scripts and projects that hopefully ‘open us out’ continuously.”
Over the last four decades, the company has grappled with hundreds of fascinating scripts either as staged readings or Main Stage productions.
The theater started with Spoon River Anthology in 1975 and quickly became an all-volunteer organization when it became clear that $3 tickets weren’t going to offer any financial recompense. Since then, actors and directors have explored and presented the work of many playwrights, including Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Lillian Hellman, Brendan Behan and George Bernard Shaw.
“It’s encouraging to think that after 40 years we’re still committed to our beginnings, held together by a company of volunteers dedicated to the playwright and to the discoveries the piece offers,” Pilo says. “The play’s the thing. That’s the way it should be.”