In literature and in plays, whenever the devil appears, there is usually something very human about him as a character," observes actor-turned-director Tim McKniffin. "In The Seafarer, I think that is especially true. As written by Conor McPherson, the devil is flawed, he's sad, he's lonely and he's weirdly noble. But he's also definitely the villain, and you still want him to lose in the end."
Kniffin, best known for his roles in Cinnabar Theater's Enchanted April, Aurora Theatre's Best Man, Sixth Street Playhouse's In the Mood and others, is directing The Seafarer for Narrow Way Stage Company, a fast-rising company whose reputation for smart, funny, obscenity-fueled plays was been built on shows like this one. For his first time directing a full-length production, Kniffin has assembled a cast of Narrow Way regulars (Freddy Lambert, Neil Thollander), up-and-comers (Matt Withauss) and two of the most highly regarded actors in the North Bay: Ed McCloud (True West, Midsummer Night's Dream) and Keith Baker (The Scene, The Three Musketeers).
The play, which premiered in Dublin in 2006, involves a pair of roguish Irish brothers, their unruly band of whiskey-friendly associates, and one wild all-night poker game on Christmas Eve to which the Devil is accidentally invited. Both epic in scope and intensely intimate, the play is quickly becoming a staple for small regional theater companies around the globe. With its upcoming three-weekend production at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Kniffin and Narrow Way are giving the show its North Bay premiere.
"We can't wait to share this show with as many people as we can," says McCloud, who plays the role of Sharky, an ex-con who's returned home seeking a measure of redemption, only to find himself pitted against the devil in the form of Mr. Lockhart, who once won Sharky's soul in a card game and has finally arrived to collect.
"As a performer myself," says McCloud, "I can't wait to dig into this play with an audience, to go for the ride, to see what we can discover about these characters. The second act, especially, where we play the big poker game—it's a huge challenge to carry off onstage, to sell it and bring to life in a way that the story demands, but I can't wait to see what our audiences do. It's so much fun, so incredibly intense, this whole play."
"It turns out it's not easy to play poker onstage," offers Keith Baker, who plays the part of Lockhart. After playing the devil last year in Sixth Street Playhouse's Possession of Mrs. Jones, this marks Baker's second consecutive turn as the Prince of Darkness, and he's been enjoying the opportunity to explore different aspects of the iconic character. "So I'm playing the devil at the same time I'm playing poker, and doing an Irish accent, while everybody else is playing it drunk while playing poker and doing Irish. And in the middle of it all, they're battling me for their souls. There's a lot of stuff going on in this show, which is what makes it so much fun."
Adds McCloud: "This play isn't as well known as some of McPherson's other plays [The Weir, Shining City, Dublin Carol], but there are so many wonderful themes interwoven into this show—faith, family, addiction, redemption, living with 'sinful' deeds of your past, deciding how you are going to face up to your destiny. It's all such juicy stuff—and it's incredibly funny, because McPherson is such a good writer. I think this play will come to be seen as a masterpiece down the road. I have no doubt about that.
"The key to the play, for me," he continues, "is the scene where Lockhart describes what Hell is like—total separation from everyone else, complete isolation. In this play, these crazy drunken Irish guys are able to accomplish the opposite of that—real human connection with each other. We, as humans, can experience what the devil will never have: companionship with each other."
"Poor Lucifer," Kniffin laughs. "Poor, poor Lucifer."
'The Seafarer' runs Thursdays&–Sundays, Feb. 12&–28, at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane in Rohnert Park. 8pm. $10&–$20. 707.588.3400.
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