From what playwright Conor McPherson has heard, the Jungle Theater does “a very good job with my work.”
It doesn’t matter that he likely heard this from a Jungle publicist. The company has, in fact, done well by McPherson, the Irish playwright considered among the very best of his generation.
That’s why his new play, “The Night Alive,” has been so eagerly awaited at the Jungle, where it opened Friday. McPherson is again writing about people on the edges, scruffy souls searching for redemption amid ghosts and often alcohol. Stephen Yoakam plays Tommy, a Dubliner who takes in a woman (played by Sara Richardson) who has been beaten up. The cast also includes Patrick Bailey, who has been in every Jungle take on McPherson. Tyson Forbes and Martin Ruben round out the ensemble.
Directing is Joel Sass, who created a cinematic and ghostly universe in 2007’s staging of McPherson’s “Shining City.” Bailey was joined by Cheryl Willis and J.C. Cutler — who gave a top-three career performance. In 2009, Sass directed Yoakam and a superb cast in “The Seafarer,” McPherson’s charming play about the devil’s visit to a Christmas Eve poker game.
McPherson’s worlds, his understanding of the seen and the unseen, are permeable. They mixed supernaturally in “Shining City” and theologically in “The Seafarer.”
“Perhaps it’s because I was raised a Catholic, or because Irish people are very superstitious anyway,” McPherson wrote by e-mail. “I was always interested in ghosts and the unseen and unknown, from a very young age.
“I imagine it’s ultimately some form of a search for God, or the ultimate answer, or a sense of meaning. I can’t really say exactly what it is, but it’s a pretty universal feeling. It’s probably why I like working in the theater so much. It resembles a religious ritual.”
At heart, a storyteller
McPherson, born in Dublin in 1971, had his big break with “The Weir” in 1999. It was set in a rural Irish pub and consisted of a series of monologues — ghost stories. “Shining City” prompted the Daily Telegraph to label him “the finest dramatist of his generation.” He made his National Theatre debut with “The Seafarer” in 2006, a production that largely stayed intact for a Broadway run the following year.
Booze lubricated “The Seafarer,” and McPherson said the relationship with alcohol has indeed played a role in his work. “When I was younger, I felt it gave characters a license to say or do anything,” he said.
Sober for 15 years, he has found that he doesn’t need the license.
“People will say and do the most bizarre things anyway,” he said. “They don’t need to drink to be crazy!”
Sass said he appreciates and welcomes McPherson’s embrace of mystery. Too often, Sass said, a playwright will convey a strident and smug message. McPherson’s work does have meaning, but it’s expressed in reverence toward the mystery rather than the certainty of life.
“The real meaning for me is never in anything the actors say,” McPherson said. “It’s somewhere in between the lines. It’s somewhere under the play, and that’s what I’m trying to communicate — the unsayable.”
“The Night Alive” had its debut in 2013 at London’s Donmar Warehouse and transferred to Broadway the following year. It won 2014 best play from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle.
At the Jungle, Yoakam again plays a character who would be homeless if not for the meager help of friends and family members. (“I center on people who don’t have a secure foundation,” McPherson said.) The character, Tommy, rescues Aimee from a street beating, and invites her to stay at his place. At least it’s safe.
“This one is kind of cosmic and has to do with the role that chance or fate and risk — action without reflection — can influence the various possible narratives our lives could take,” Sass said.
That is another way of saying that life is never settled and that transcendence or redemption can change lives.
“If we can make an audience laugh, frighten them, invite them to sympathize with the characters, then we have taken the audience somewhere deeper into themselves,” McPherson said. “And it’s a great honor and privilege when an audience goes to those places. “