Four alcoholic Irishmen gather in a slovenly Dublin flat for a booze-fuelled all-night Christmas Eve poker game in The Seafarer, opening tonight at the MTC Warehouse.
The hosts in Conor McPherson's yuletide fable are fractious siblings: Richard, who in a drunken stupor recently tumbled into a garbage dumpster, banged his head and woke up blind; and his younger brother Sharkey, a down-on-his luck ex-con back home trying to continue his two-day stay on the wagon. Their feckless friends Nicky and Ivan have led equally misspent lives on a permanent bender.
If anyone needed a Christmas miracle or at least a gift of salvation it is this quartet of losers.
Playing the crusty Richard is veteran Winnipeg actor Brian Richardson, whose return to the stage after a throat cancer diagnosis represents a career rebirth especially poignant at this time of year.
"It's a second chance for me," says Richardson, 65. "I didn't know if I was going to be able to step on a stage again.
"It's a play about redemption. It's very much a personal story."
While his cancer is now in remission, he still struggles with some of the residual effects, like brain fog, which causes memory lapses, a particular annoyance for a performer. Late-day energy shortages have been another worry.
"I thought it might be it," he says, in the Warehouse lobby prior to a recent rehearsal. "There was a period of two or three weeks where I couldn't speak. It was very unnerving."
The longtime Winnipeg Beach resident who has returned to living in the city was the beneficiary of a fundraiser last February called A Vaudeville Roast with Love. He says it was the first time he realized he had such community support.
"It was a reawakening for me," says Richardson, who directed and produced many history plays at The Forks. "I feel that in the play as well. There is a realization that there is support out there, that there is something beyond the darkness."
Like Richard, Richardson is a Dubliner who understands the Irish world McPherson (best known for The Weir) writes about. He knows these characters who anesthetize their souls with drink. He lived in Winnipeg's North End and has seen a similar use of alcohol as a painkiller. McPherson's plays are flush with well-soused men for whom there is nothing as despairing as a look at the bottom of an empty glass.
Ireland is a country with a drinking problem, and McPherson is a recovering alcoholic who, on the opening night of his new play Port Authority in 2001, collapsed and was unconscious for three weeks due to pancreatitis.
"I was back (in Ireland) in 2003 when my mother was dying and I found the drink culture very strong," Richardson says. "There is a tremendous amount of alcohol consumption."
It was a circuitous route that brought Richardson to Winnipeg after immigrating to upstate New York to go to college. A fear of being drafted into the U.S. army and seeing combat in Vietnam prompted him in 1969 to resettle in Montreal where he began working in youth theatre. A year later, he and a fellow actor were driving to Vancouver when their car died in Winnipeg and left them with no money to leave. In 1971 he made his theatre debut in Peter Pan at Rainbow Stage.
Soon he became a founding member of the comedy troupe Confidential Exchange, which included Jay Brazeau, David Gillies and David King. His first show at MTC was Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars in 1974 and his last was in 1989 in A View From the Bridge in which his castmate was The Seafarer's director Gina Wilkinson.
After Dublin Carol and St. Nicholas, The Seafarer is the third McPherson play set at Christmas.
"It's a Christmas story as much as A Christmas Carol is a Christmas story," says Richardson. "There is something about this time of year, the winter solstice. There is a sense of darkness coming and we will be reborn out of that."