Review “The Night Alive” (Steppenwolf Theatre): Dark with the promise of light

Thursday, October 9, 2014 Permalink 0

nightaliveprodweb-3Steppenwolf Theatre presents the Chicago Premiere of THE NIGHT ALIVE.

Tommy (played in bittersweet perfection by Francis Guinan) is having a mid-life crisis. He is estranged from his wife and teenage children.  He is living in a dilapidated room in his aging uncle’s house.  He survives by running petty scams with his friend Doc (played by the amicable Tim Hopper).  His room is piled high with turnips, clothing, books, cigars and other acquisitions from rummaging excursions. The play starts when Tommy brings home his latest find, a beaten up girl.

Playwright Conor McPherson creates genuine characters.  They are a blend of ordinary and extraordinary.  They aren’t anything special.  On the surface, they are eccentrics that would be overlooked by most people.  The deeper story is the humanity. They have an extensive capacity to care for each other and even a stranger.  Guinan, in particular, serves as the patriarch of this makeshift family.  While we see him as a beacon for these needy misfits, we also hear him in sharp contrast on the phone to an invisible character.  It’s through these visual and audible clues we connect McPherson’s backstory of Tommy, a man teetering uncertainly between his past and future.

McPherson is a masterful storyteller.  He creates unexpected tenderness. The dialogue between Guinan and Hopper has an authentic and familiar lilt to it.  They have an established routine of nightly visits.  At one point, Hopper climbs in the window to share his chips and sausages. When Guinan reprimands him on picking up ‘Aimee’s cup,’ Hopper easily accepts the newcomer and looks for a third cup.  These vagabonds welcome the guarded Helen Sadler (Aimee) without reservation. Their kindness prompts her to impulsively join them in a hilarious tribute dance to Marvin Gaye.

Aiding McPherson’s storytelling, Director Henry Wishcamper builds a homey, if not shabby, ambiance and then adds a darkness.  Physically, Lighting Designer Keith Parham keeps the entrance of Dan Waller (Kenneth) dimly lit and shadowy. This is Waller like I’ve never seen him onstage.  Upon arrival, he is an animated mess.  Waller playfully dons vampire teeth to scare Hopper.  He is being so overly friendly, it is scary, terrifyingly scary.  Rounding out the cast, M. Emmet Walsh (no relation) plays a cantankerous landlord.  McPherson pens his characters with stereotype façades and then goes deeper to reveal poignant essences.  In one particular heartbreaking passage, Walsh describes his wife with palpable anger and sorrow.

THE NIGHT ALIVE charms showing the best and worst parts of both good and bad people.  It illustrates how a kind act can have a life altering impact.  And through Hopper’s dream explanation, it tells us exactly what heaven is like.  THE NIGHT ALIVE has darkness with the promise of light at daybreak.

Running Time:  One hour and forty-five minutes

At Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted

Written by Conor McPherson

Directed by Henry Wishcamper

Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 7:30pm

Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm and 7:30pm

Thru November 16th

Buy Tickets at


Production photo by Michael Brosilow


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