THEATER | The Jungle Theater’s “Seafarer”: A wickedly entertaining tale of Christmas among the “surplus population”


In A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Ebenezer Scrooge on an instructive tour of the downtrodden: clerks, miners, sailors, the huddled masses. Despite their humble means, it’s revealed, the people Scrooge dismisses as “the surplus population” have a joy in their hearts that puts to shame the wealthy Scrooge’s bitter discontent. In the context of this canonical narrative being enacted by theater companies all over town, it’s downright subversive of the Jungle Theater to mount Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, a Christmas story that suggests that maybe the poor are just as messed up as the rich.

Joel Sass’s absorbing production transports us to the basement apartment of 40-something Sharky (Stephen Yoakam), the eponymous seafarer—a washed-up seafarer, to be exact. After decades of fighting a losing battle against his own self-destructive impulses, Sharky has returned to his family home to care for his brother Richard (Allen Hamilton), who’s recently been blinded in an accident. As the two brothers hunker down to celebrate Christmas Eve, they’re joined by their pals Ivan (Patrick Bailey) and Nicky (Mark Rhein), as well as by a suspiciously well-dressed man Nicky met at the bar. Mr. Lockhart (Phil Kilbourne), it turns out, has returned to force Sharky to make good on a 25-year-old promise to play poker for very, very high stakes. How high? I won’t spoil the plot’s surprises, but here’s a hint: the program features a short essay on “Images of the Devil.”

McPherson’s 2006 script is a remarkable balancing act, dropping telling hints about Sharky’s troubled past in a brisk, gripping narrative that also finds a generous amount of room for funny vignettes and stories that illuminate the five sharply-drawn characters. This production never steps wrong in translating the play to the Jungle stage, which is perfectly suited for McPherson’s work. Sass’s set design is remarkable as always, jagged edges around the proscenium giving the impression of a cutaway view into Sharky’s convincingly cozy mess of a flat. As a set designer, Sass is particularly good at conveying a sense of depth and reality: when a character walks up the stairs at the back of the set, you really believe he’s walking outside.

the seafarer, playing through december 20 at the jungle theater. for tickets ($28-$36) and information, see

The casting is also flawless: the five actors seem born into their roles. Hamilton gets all the best lines as the boozy Richard, who seems almost happy that his blindness has given him an excuse to settle down and devote his life to drink. Bailey and Rhein flirt with caricature as Richard’s goofy drinking buddies, but their comic gusto sets Yoakam’s simmering self-loathing in sharp relief. The slick Kilbourne’s skill at tweaking the other men’s insecurities is deliciously chilling, but the actor also poignantly illuminates his character’s own desperation.

By the time it ends with an amusing plot twist, The Seafarer has become an unexpectedly heartwarming holiday fable. Like A Christmas Carol, it turns on a central character who’s resigned himself to a life of resentful despair, and who experiences a supernatural revelation that teaches him to count his blessings. It’s a powerful theme, and one especially resonant at the holidays; unlike Dickens’s 1843 tale, though, The Seafarer is fresh and surprising. Further, it features a hero who’s more recognizably human than the cartoonish Scrooge.

The Jungle’s production of this new play is entirely compelling and hugely entertaining. I’m going to see several more plays this holiday season, and I’m looking forward to all of them—but at this point, I feel quite safe in saying that if you’re going to buy a ticket to just one holiday show this year, you should make it The Seafarer.

This event is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.