Steppenwolf performance comes to life in ‘The Night Alive’

Ensamble members Francis Guinan and Tim Hopper with Helen Sadler in "The Night Alive." (Michael Brosilow / Steppenwolf Theatre)
Ensamble members Francis Guinan and Tim Hopper with Helen Sadler in “The Night Alive.” (Michael Brosilow / Steppenwolf Theatre)

Theater, if we let it, has the ability to transport us to another world entirely. Sometimes, though, it simultaneously grounds us in the middle of a difficult and messy reality. Steppenwolf Theatre’s “The Night Alive,” written by Conor McPherson and directed by Henry Wishcamper, does just that.

It sweeps us up and plants us on our feet all at once in a world that is magnificently and heartbreakingly real. Rife with a tight-knit cast, a beautifully designed set and impeccable acting, the show is seamless from start to finish. It is the kind of production that envelops you and releases you on its own terms.

“The Night Alive” chronicles a sliver of time in the life of a man named Tommy (Francis Guinan). He is nearly broke, intensely disheartened and wrestling with the confines of a broken marriage. He is squatting in his uncle’s (M. Emmet Walsh) apartment on his own, aside from the occasional companionship of his sometimes-quirky but always-kind co-worker and friend, Doc (Dan Waller).

As the paint peels from his walls and hot showers become a rare privilege, Tommy’s hope begins to dwindle. When he rescues an impoverished woman named Aimee (Helen Sadler) from a violent attack one night, though, his life becomes more mysterious, hopeful, dangerous and brighter than he ever could have anticipated.

Cast members Helen Sadler as Aimee and Dan Waller as Kenneth in Connor McPherson's latest play. (Michael Brosilow / Steppenwolf Theatre)
Cast members Helen Sadler as Aimee and Dan Waller as Kenneth in Connor McPherson’s latest play. (Michael Brosilow / Steppenwolf Theatre)

The entirety of “The Night Alive” takes place in Tommy’s Dublin apartment. Though the production is remains consistent in its location, it is full of an unparalleled movement and vigor in its content. It blends meditative monologues and colloquial dialogue with the utmost ease, and never ceases to remind us that it has a lesson to teach and a purpose to serve.

It is apparent from its start to its finish that it was brought to fruition in the hands of skilled artists. Its design, acting and direction are impeccable.

While each member of the cast offers a unique gift to the production, it is clear Francis Guinan is in control of the world that the show imparts. His presence is not particularly large or imposing, but the heart that he instills his performance is both magnetic and gentle.

Though Tommy’s situation is specific, we can’t help but see a little of us in everything he does and every misfortune he encounters. Guinan saturates him with a realness, which fuses “The Night Alive.” It propels us from its discomfort and nestles us in the heart of its honesty all at once.

Ensemble member Dan Waller is similarly brilliant in his portrayal of the genial Doc. While his character garners many of the show’s well-deserved laughs, something profoundly heartbreaking also surrounds him.

Steppenwolf’s newest show should not be missed. Its brilliant blend of heart and wit are a marvel. It dabbles in loneliness and love and is somehow at once both quiet and suspenseful. McPherson has a masterful hold on what makes the human mind tick and plays unabashedly but never recklessly with emotion. “The Night Alive” is the kind of show that will leave you perfectly fulfilled and intensely contemplative. It is both a challenge and a treat.

“The Night Alive” runs at Steppenwolf Theatre from Sept. 18 to Nov. 16.