The Night Alive

By Conor McPhersonTHE-NIGHT-ALIVE-at-Steppenwolf

Directed by Henry Wishcamper

At Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

Humor and poignancy fuel Irish play

Conor McPherson’s 2013 play, The Night Alive, now in a stunningly subdued production at Steppenwolf  Theatre, is a wonderful play that quickly sucks us into the disorderly work of Tommy (Francis Guinan), a fifty-something broken man who survives by selling lost items and doing odd jobs. He is estranged from his wife and teenage daughters. He lives in a disheveled one room (terrific set design by Todd Rosenthal) in his Uncle Maurice’s Edwardian house in Dublin.

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One day, Tommy returns home with a bloody teenage girl whom he has rescued from a domestic attack on the streets of Dublin. Aimee (Helen Sadler) is a sometime prostitute, now destitute, who needs a dose of compassion as well as a safe  place to crash. Tommy dotes on the fallen girl as he  cleans her wounds, feeds her, and ultimately pays her for sex. Is Tommy helping Aimee as a substitute for his inability to help his troubled daughter?

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Tommy’s life is a mess, as he lives in a dirty room as he struggles to survive by doing odd jobs and plotting a parade of get-rich-quick schemes with his pal Doc (Tim Hopper), a mentally-challenged near savant numinous person who both can’t grasp simple tasks yet expounds complex spiritual and scientific concepts.

stpeppenwolf theatreThe day Tommy comes to rescue Aimee, a series of events offer hope to Tommy as he just may experience some purpose and some long craved intimacy. Uncle Maurice (M. Emmet Walsh), a cantankerous senior and father figure to Tommy, offers stark reality and wisdom to Tommy’s flighty antics.  McPherson, once again, demonstrates male grief and regret in his characters as they are presented as  empathic, flawed, and vulnerable to life’s challenges. As the characters live in a weird, mysterious sort of darkness and bewilderment, it seems that their fall from grace sends them into pain:  physical, emotional, and spiritual. We experience their fall in a precarious feeling fueled by unpredictability and mystery, as the play’s actions keeps changing throwing us off balance just as life often does.

We empathize with Tommy as he tries to help Aimee. We feel Doc’s terror as the devil-like figure Kenneth (Dan Waller) terrorizes Doc as pure evil. Kenneth’s harassment of Aimee and Tommy becomes an epic struggle between good and evil that leads to a series of life altering decisions by Tommy and Aimee.

steppenwolf theatreThe Night Alive is a masterful work filled with fantastic performances, especially by Francis Guinan, one of the finest actors  working today, and Tim Hopper, with terrific supporting work from M. Emmet Walsh. But Guinan makes The Night Alive work as he combines likability, vulnerability, and humanity into a flawed soul that we easily recognize as us. Guinan makes us see his character’s foibles, his pains, and his need to connect with others that is played out with self depreciating humor and deeply felt poignancy.  Loneliness and frustration underscore their lives as they try to use banter and humor to mask their pain.

The Night Alive is a brilliantly constructed drama that unfolds as finely directed and beautifully acted work that leaves audiences moved and satisfied that their lives and their aspirations are in a better place than Tommy, Doc and Aimee. We are glad we shared the experiences of these very human souls as only a master playwright can present them. The Night Alive is one of the finest players seen on a Chicago stage this year! Don’t miss it.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: September 27, 2014

For  more info checkout The Night Alive page at

At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, call312-336-1650,, tickets $20- $82, Tuesdays thru Sundays at 7:30, matinees on Wednesdays at 2 pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 95 minutes without intermission, through November 16, 2014