Kneeling under a harsh light while thugs discuss whether to cripple him on the spot by breaking his legs, Brian d’Arcy James is a compelling presence at the center of this virtuoso Irish monologue play. He makes us understand a man whom many would prefer not to meet in a dark alley. And he proves to be unforgettable company.
Conor McPherson’s jagged, harrowing tale examines the protagonist’s attempted flight from violence toward a new life. En route to meeting his own fate, he takes two others with him, claiming as his hostages a world-weary mother and child.
With ties to the Dublin mob, the central character describes himself as “a messy bastard,” a truth that nobody he meets would dispute. James plays the role with a kind of contained rage, becoming a man guided by his fear of mob retaliation and his hope for an answer to his own yearning to stay alive.
As directed by Carl Forsman, the play has a natural, rolling rhythm. James speaks directly to the audience, telling us his own tale as if his life depended upon the outcome. McPherson travels where few other playwrights go — to the ragged inner truths of a man’s desire for a semblance of normality at any cost. Originally titled “The Light of Jesus” and performed under the author’s own direction in Dublin, the play is a quiet bid for understanding of the pressures that turn an ordinary man into a fugitive.
The production is by no means uncomplicated or humorless. There are ironies by the bushel here, and painful absurdities that make it hard not to laugh — as well as moments of rough-hewn tenderness. The characters trapped within this story find mercy where they can, perhaps mostly in the human act of telling and listening.
Forsman is an unsparing and able director, aided in his work by a nuanced lighting designer, Josh Bradford, who navigates the story’s moods with an inspired sureness. But McPherson’s protagonist is the evening’s true locus, and James can hold an audience at his mercy through his storytelling, taking them everywhere he wants them to go and never letting up.