It’s a Conor McPherson Christmas at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, which is presenting not one but two of the Irish writer’s yuletide tales of alcoholism and potential redemption. And to make them especially ornamental, both plays — the 2000 “Dublin Carol” with William Petersen at its smaller Upstairs theater and the more recent “The Seafarer” with John Mahoney on the mainstage — boast prodigal stage actors returning to their hometown theaters aglow with television stardom. But while the famous names sparkle effectively enough, it’s Steppenwolf stalwart Francis Guinan who provides the most memorable gift as the sad-sack Sharky in “The Seafarer.”
While he hasn’t garnered as much recent attention as his fellow Steppenwolf collaborators, Guinan has arguably delivered the greatest collection of performances of any Chicago actor over the past two seasons. In addition to his un-showy but highly effective performance as a loyal husband whose patience goes over the brink in “August: Osage County,” he has stood out significantly in other shows — as Danforth in Anna Shapiro’s production of “The Crucible” and more recently playing the fanciful brand-name embodiments of Johnny Walker and Col. Sanders in the Frank Galati-helmed adaptation of the novel “Kafka on the Shore.”
In “The Seafarer,” Guinan is absolutely convincing as the pathetic Sharky. He slouches a bit throughout, an extra physical manifestation — in addition to that bandage on his probably broken nose from a recent ill-advised drunken row — of just how beaten down this character has been by life. And while it’s oh-so-subtle, we can feel him wince with internal humiliation as his now-blind older brother Richard (Mahoney) berates him and orders him about.
On Broadway, Jim Norton and the inestimable Conleth Hill turned Richard and his drinking buddy Ivan — together adding up to a half a set of seeing eyes — into a gut-bustingly funny alcoholic version of Beckett’s Didi and Gogo.
Here Mahoney (and director Randall Arney) assures that Richard’s mean streak comes through fully and foremost. Both Mahoney and Alan Wilder as Ivan clutch their whiskey with more desperation than joy, and if that makes this production less constantly amusing, it also restores Sharky and his confrontation with Mr. Lockhart (Tom Irwin) to the main event of McPherson’s supernatural drama, in which Sharky must play poker for his very soul.
Irwin also delivers a most histrionic devil in disguise, and Takeshi Kata’s smaller-scale set design pays off in a climactic scene, as the Dublin living room gets framed by an image of a surrounding, metaphorical sea.
However, in a play that’s solid but on the thin side, it’s Guinan who makes this memorable.