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AT FIRST GLANCE, IT SOUNDS LIKE AN ODD premise for a Christmas play: five drunk middle-aged Irish guys sitting around on Christmas Eve playing poker, cursing and gambling.

But David Edwards, director of “The Seafarer” at Florida Repertory Theatre, compares the play to “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

“It’s thematically a very similar thing, but the treatment is different,” he says. “It has moments of great darkness and is very uplifting. It’s also a very funny play. It has dark humor, but is also driven by the exquisite writing of these characters.”

The play contains certain elements of the supernatural, but is rooted in the Irish tradition of Catholicism, he adds. “But you don’t have to be a believer to get the point. That’s what’s amazing about it.

“Our hero, (Sharky), is at odds with the devil for his life, or his immortality, and you don’t have to be a believer in heaven and hell (to get the drama of this.)”

Though the other characters don’t realize it, Sharky is playing poker with the devil, with his very soul and eternal future at stake. He’s fighting for his life, for his will to live and his appreciation of what he has here on earth, which is the same thing that happens to Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” and to George Bailey in “It’s aWonderful Life,” Mr. Edwards adds.

James Clarke, the actor who plays Sharky, describes his character as “a guy who’s had a lot happen in his life.” Even though Sharky is a middle-aged man, “He’s had a very difficult life and is trying to find a better way for himself. He’s suffered through a lot in his life. He’s in a lot of denial about what he’s doing in his life.”

Mr. Clarke thinks that’s true of everyone.

“A lot of people are in denial their whole life about what’s important to them,” he says. “So many people just let life pass them by and don’t want to think about the choices they’ve made. I think that’s what alcoholism is about, drug addiction, gambling addiction, work addiction. People don’t want to deal with what’s going on in their life and what’s important to them.

“Most people are very content to watch television and not think about things. I think that’s another addiction: television. People don’t want to examine their own lives and understand why they’re in the situation they’re in.”

Like Sharky, Mr. Clarke has peered into the abyss.

He experienced a serious health issue in the past few years, though he shies away from talking about it.

“I’ve had to re-examine things, and I have,” he says. “I’m happy to be here.”

He’d rather concentrate on the play itself, which he says may very well be the best play he’s read in 20 years.

“Sharky’s being confronted with his mortality. He’s gambling, he’s playing for his life. That’s part of the redemption of the play: Life has gone by. He’s done things he has a hard time living with, and he’s confronted with that.

“And he realizes that he can move on with his life and can forgive himself. He realizes how precious life is. We all take it for granted … People don’t realize how incredible life is.”

Mr. Edwards says he could see how strongly Mr. Clarke related to his character when the cast first got together to read through the play.

“We are blessed to have his experience in this play, how deeply he appreciates a second chance,” the director says. “That’s a gift, that’s a gift to us all. I’m grateful he’s willing to go there, and use that on-stage and open up to us all.”

‘Five juicy parts’

Not only is “The Seafarer” an amazing piece of writing, Mr. Edwards says, but all five characters are middle-aged men.

“In our culture, we write for young people. You’re disposable after a certain age,” he says. But not in this play. “They’re all vital people, five juicy parts. It’s a lot to bite on for the actors.”

As for audience members, he says, “You can enjoy it on different levels. You can laugh at it, but it sends you home with something to think about.

There’s a wonderful sense of a journey and redemption at the end, and hopefulness.

“It’s a play about a time in your life when you realize how much time has already passed, but you’re still young enough to say, ‘There’s so much more I can do, if I changed my ways.’

“When you’re young, you feel you’ll live forever. And then you have your first health issue or have someone you love pass away. Then things become so much more vibrant and important to you, and you tend to lose your patience with people who consider throwing it all away.”

The backstory

Written in 2006 by Conor McPherson, “The Seafarer” first played in London. Directed by Mr. McPherson, it was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Play. It opened on Broadway the following year, again under Mr. McPherson’s direction, and received multiple Tony Awardnominations in 2008, including one for Best Play. It then went on to play in Dublin, Ireland, where the play is set.

Three years ago, Producing Artistic Director Robert Cacioppo put the play on Florida Rep’s calendar. At first, he intended it for a mainstage production, but then he decided it would be better in the company’s smaller ArtStage Studio Theatre next door.

“There’s a certain amount of intimacy (to the ArtStage space),” says Mr. Clarke. “The way our set is constructed, it almost feels as if the audience is right in the room with the actors. There’s a sense of inclusion. You’re sitting in a room with these people rather than observing them (from afar.)”

“I love ‘The Seafarer,’” says Mr. Cacioppo, putting it in the company of other Irish plays such as “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” “The Pillowman” and “The Weir.”

“This is right in there,” he says. “Over the last decade, some of the very best plays are from Irish playwrights. I love them all. I’m glad I’m finally doing one.

“Our mission is to do a wide variety of work, and this being a very popular genre on Broadway and in London, all over the world, I think our audience should have one.”

He notes that the play contains a lot of dark humor. “This really is a comedy … People are not going to leave the theater saying this is depressing. They’ll feel joyous about the holidays.

“The Irish just know how to tell a great story.”

The actor Mr. Clarke says Mr. McPherson is “one of the great playwrights alive today, and he has built a ship that’s going straight into the waves. He takes it all on as it’s going into a storm. And the ending is just spectacular.

“It’s kind of a perfect little play.

“You are alive today, and it’s pretty damn good —especially if you’re healthy and not in pain. Life is pretty miraculous.”