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by Nancy Stetson – 11/24/15

If you want to give yourself an early Christmas present, buy a ticket to “The Seafarer,” now playing at Florida Repertory Theatre’s ArtStage Studio Theatre (through Dec. 13).

It’s as close to perfection as you can get in theater: a quintet of actors at the height of their game with an ingenious script (by Conor McPherson) and insightful direction (David Edwards).

“The Seafarer” brings you to the heights and depths of emotion and turns you inside out.

Producing artistic director Robert Cacioppo’s been wanting to stage this dark comedy for a few years, and after seeing it, I can say that it’s been well worth the wait. It’s easy to understand why it was nominated for Best Play for both Tony and Olivier Awards. It’s humorous and moving, but also haunting.

On the surface, it’s about a group a group of drunken, middle-aged Irishmen playing poker onChristmas Eve. Sharky (James Clarke) has returned home from a chauffeuring job to spend Christmas with his blind brother, Richard (a wonderfully curmudgeonly Graham Smith.) Sharky’s newly sober and trying to stay on the wagon.

Best friend Ivan (Craig Bockhorn), a hapless kind of guy who’s well-intentioned but seems perpetually befuddled by life, has been checking in on Richard in Sharky’s absence. They are long-time friends and drinking buddies. Mr. Bockhorn does such a skillful job portraying Ivan that we instantly like him. When we first meet him, his hair’s disheveled, his clothes askew. Dreadfully hungover, he’s misplaced his glasses, and he’s not too sure where his car is, either. Like the rest of the characters — like all of us — he’s stumbling through life, trying his best, but not always quite succeeding.

Sharky and Richard are living in a shambles of a house, with cracks and holes in the wall, easy chairs that have seen better days, and empty bottles everywhere. It’s definitely a bachelor’s lair. Jordan Moore’s designed the set in such a way that we feel we’re actually in the room among them, invisible witnesses to what takes place. The kitchen, bathroom and steps to the front door are all in various corners of the space, beyond the audience’s chairs.

In an impulse of Christmas cheer, Richard’s invited Nicky (William Zielinski) to stop by and play cards.

He does, bringing an unexpected guest with him, Mr. Lockhart (Peter Thomasson).

And, though the others think they’re just playing a friendly game of cards, Sharky winds up playing poker with the devil, with his very soul at stake.

Mr. Thomasson is truly terrifying as he exudes evil along with his arrogance and slickness. (Todd O. Wren’s lighting greatly assists here too, in setting the tone.) Though unerringly polite on the surface, he torments the others. He knows their weaknesses, their guilt, their self-doubt, and that’s where he pokes them, again and again. His eyes are piercing, his very demeanor chilling.

His description of hell is unlike anything you’ve ever heard preached in a church: a place of complete and total isolation, trapped in a suffocating coffin a thousand miles under the cold, dark sea, forever alone, unable to sleep and unable to die.

Whether you believe in the existence of God and the Devil and Heaven and Hell is immaterial for enjoying “The Seafarer;” they exist in this play, and very convincingly so.

Mr. Clarke is an Everyman, struggling and failing, struggling and failing.

He displays, often without words, his hopes, his regrets, his fear, his resignation. He’s accused of “always making a mess of things,” and it does seem that he’s throwing his life away.

Mr. Zielinski plays his neighbor, Nicky, the man who is now living with Sharky’s ex-girlfriend. He’s brash, a big-talker with big schemes.

And Mr. Smith’s Richard is a complex portrayal. He’s disagreeable and argumentative, self-pitying, yet full of cheer and optimistic, even proclaiming at one point, “I believe Sharky has potential, I believe he can change.”

“The Seafarer” has been compared to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol,” though it’s certainly not as chipper as the former nor as moralistic as the latter.

It contains more humor than you think it might, though it’s not what you’d consider family fare.

And, like all masterful plays, Mr. McPherson’s script contains layers upon layers. He skillfully weaves in the themes of light and darkness throughout, and also gives us various kinds of blindness: willful, spiritual and actual physical blindness. (Richard was blinded in an accident, and Nicky dons sunglasses while playing poker — an affectation to be sure, but also a commentary on his sight.)

“The Seafarer” is a great modern Irish fable, both realistic and fantastic.

You leave the theater feeling wrung out, yet hopeful, as though you’ve been on a long, treacherous journey.

It’s one of the best things Florida Rep has produced: gripping, powerful and haunting.