Not all Irish drunks are charming rogues, loquacious storytellers or wise souls with a touch of the blarney. Some are just sad humans lost in a limbo of loneliness, fear and regret. Such is the main character in Conor McPherson’s short three-hander, which brings “CSI” star William Petersen back to the stage after eight years in this confessional of a play.
But neither Petersen, nor Steppenwolf helmer Amy Morton or the meandering script can shape this visit to an alcoholic’s no-man’s-land into a completely satisfying dramatic whole. It’s more of a hazy meditation on a lost soul in a low-key production that seems long at 75 minutes.
Story centers on John Plunkett (Petersen), who works for a kindly undertaker — now hospitalized — who has taken him under his wing and saved him from the drunken gutter. Grateful John is now a functioning alcoholic, grappling privately with his sad, shameful and cowardly past while still imbibing in measured but constant sips of whiskey to dull his pain and the memory of the pain he caused others — just enough to get by and make it through one more day. He’s surrounded by death while going through the motions of a modest livelihood. It’s clear that John is ever so carefully, safely, living in his own waystation en route to his inevitable end.
He is jarred by a Christmas Eve visit from his daughter, Mary (Rachael Warren), whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years. She comes to inform him that the wife he abandoned decades before is dying of cancer and asks him to visit her mother before she dies.
The encounter opens up a host of feelings from both characters of past failings, humiliations and heartbreak, shattering the delicate existence John has created.
The third character in the three-scene work is 20-year-old Mark (Danny Mefford), who works part-time at the funeral home. He provides John with a chance to reveal his past history.
When Mark returns drunk in play’s final scene, it’s clear he may be the ghost of Christmas Future — coming dangerously close to mirroring John’s fate, taking to the bottle when he can’t cope with women or his own life. John counsels Mark to change as he deals with the choice he has to make as well.
Irishman McPherson (“Shining City,” “The Weir”) knows from which he writes. The program notes refer to the writer’s own less-than-glamorous descent into alcoholism. Clearly, the need for drink as depicted in this 2000 script is nothing less than pathetic. But while the dialogue has the authenticity of plain folks and the details of drink and drunks ring true, the play also has the numbness and banality of aimlessness.
Perfs all avoid sentiment, staginess and star turns, but ultimately underplay to a fault. Warren’s Mary is tightly measured, as if to keep all her conflicting emotions — from fierce resentment to tender sympathy — in check. The small details of Mefford’s socially awkward Mark are fitting and his drunk scene shows restraint. Petersen’s quiet depiction also opts for understatement, but without much tension or variety there’s little to connect to the audience.
The naturalistic minimalism of the production borders on the bland and robs the delicate piece of its potential power. The hint of redemption at the end gives the play a note of hope — but one that fails to resonate as it should.