Francis Guinan, Tim Hopper, and Helen Sadler
Francis Guinan, Tim Hopper, and Helen Sadler Credit: Michael Brosilow

Tommy’s life is a mess and so are his digs. He occupies what was probably once a garden room in the Dublin home of his old Uncle Maurice, who took over his upbringing when Tommy was a boy and is back at it now that Tommy’s a middle-aged divorced man on the skids. As rendered by set designer Todd Rosenthal, Tommy’s bit of the house is connected to the rest by French doors; it’s got its own outdoor entrance, a bank of tall windows, and a little sink of the sort that you might imagine Maurice’s dead wife, Maura, using to wash potting soil from her hands. I picture her setting coleus and geraniums along the window ledge.

Well, the pots are gone now, assuming they were ever there. Tommy’s most pawnable possession, a boom box, currently occupies the ledge. He pulls his clothes from a cardboard box, sleeps on a cot, piles dishes in the little sink, and has to feed a coin-operated meter to keep the electricity running. (He regularly games the meter, jamming in the same coin over and over again.)

But the place has an odd charm all the same. In this Steppenwolf Theatre production of Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive—also oddly charming—it functions as a sort of profane Advent calendar, sordid surprises popping out at poor Tommy from every opening as he struggles toward a personal nativity. Or more accurately, re-nativity.

The first one through a door is a young prostitute named Aimee. Tommy carries her in himself, having rescued her from a beating at the hands of her boyfriend/pimp, Kenneth. With a bad bruise on her face and nowhere to go that won’t result in further bruising, Aimee agrees to kip in the garden room under strict rules of conduct—i.e., nothing more intimate than a hand job. They’re soon joined by Tommy’s slow-witted pal and business associate, Doc, who breaches one of the windows pretty much whenever he feels like it. Uncle Maurice likes to hobble in at the French doors for surprise inspections and impromptu lectures.

Of course it’s only a matter of time until Kenneth finds his way through the garden door, too—coming off, in Dan Waller’s performance, exactly like a Pinterian thug. His sociopathic grace and soccer-player’s physique make it easy enough for him to dominate Aimee and overwhelm Doc. He doesn’t allow, though, for a desperate loser who’s fallen in love—a significant miscalculation.

But Kenneth’s isn’t the final surprise in Tommy’s Advent calendar. There’s another, brilliantly ambiguous entrance that may or may not bring him the Christmas he so badly needs. You see it happen and you think of the line from “Hotel California”: This could be heaven, this could be hell.

As the above synopsis suggests, The Night Alive traffics in familiar genre types: bully, whore, simpleton, old crank, broken soul. But McPherson is a subtle and compassionate playwright. Ireland’s bard of lost men—whose Port Authority was a marvel of Writers Theatre’s 2013-’14 season, along with his adaptation of August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death—he makes masterful use of small gestures, giving Doc, for instance, a sweetly comic texture simply by having him advise Tommy to “chillax.” Similarly, Aimee’s cracked sense of honor is embodied in the unwearable cross trainers she steals for Tommy, to express her gratitude to him.

And Tommy himself is a festival of offhanded, awful details: His debilitating phone conversations with his ex-wife. His arbitrary fixation on Finland as some kind of new Eden. His identification with both the bewilderment in Marvin Gaye’s musical question “What’s Going On?” and the smoothness with which Marvin asks it. His tale of being beaten in a boxing match only to realize that the outcome was never in doubt because the winner had brought a suit to wear afterward. When Tommy calls himself as a “moocher,” the mere word is like to break your heart.

Masterful too are the members of the cast under Henry Wishcamper’s direction. Just the sight of the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh (whom you should make it your business to see in his recent movie Calvary) would be resonant enough without the querulous dignity he imparts to Uncle Maurice. The combination of the two is wonderful. Tim Hopper is frank about Doc’s mental deficiencies, and amusing about them as well, never allowing them to devolve into caricature. He’s at his most compelling when Doc responds to Kenneth’s aggressions with a physical language of fear and placation. Helen Sadler plays Aimee appropriately close to the vest, evoking a distrust based on plenty of solid experience.

Francis Guinan, finally, is just about perfect as Tommy, his command of the role exemplified by a late, long moment when Tommy just sits there, considering the possibility of yet another abject defeat, and the whole room—the whole world—is with him. The Night Alive isn’t great McPherson, but it’s superbly good.