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"The Seafarer" Is Not Your Typical Holiday Cheer

From left to right: Actors Sam Woodhouse, Robert J. Townsend, Ron Choularton, Paul James Kruse, Armin Shimerman perform in "The Seafarer."
Photo By Erin Bigley
From left to right: Actors Sam Woodhouse, Robert J. Townsend, Ron Choularton, Paul James Kruse, Armin Shimerman perform in "The Seafarer."
"The Seafarer" Is Not Your Typical Holiday Cheer
San Diego Repertory Theatre brings an Irish comic-drama to the stage this holiday season. After making its Broadway debut in 2007, "The Seafarer" was nominated for numerous awards and garnered much acclaim for the young Irish playwright, Conor McPherson. We'll talk to the creative team behind the new production at the Rep, including artistic director Sam Woodhouse, who plays The Devil in "The Seafarer," and director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The usual holiday offerings on stage feature productions with kids and snow and a grumpy old man or a green creature who has a change of heart and then everybody sings. That's not exactly what's happening right now at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. The Rep's production of "The Seafarer" is a different sort of holiday play. Four old friends in an Irish coastal town settle down for a Christmas Eve full of cards and whiskey. But their plans are unsettled by the arrival of a mysterious stranger. “The Seafarer” was nominated for multiple Tony awards on Broadway, and joining us are several people involved in the San Diego production. Delicia Turner Sonnenberg is directing the San Diego Rep production of "The Seafarer." Delicia, welcome.

DELICIA TURNER SONNENBERG (Director): Good morning. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Sam Woodhouse is the Rep's Artistic Director and performs the role of the Prince of Darkness in this production. Sam, good morning.

SAM WOODHOUSE (Artistic Director, Repertory Theatre): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And Ron Choularton is an actor. He plays the character of Sharky in “The Seafarer.” Ron, thank you for being here.

RON CHOULARTON (Actor): Good morning. Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Delicia, as I’ve mentioned, this is not your average holiday play. Tell us what the play’s about.

SONNENBERG: Well, it’s – the story is actually a simple story of redemption and rebirth. And the, like you mentioned before, friends get together. Two of them are brothers. And it’s really a simple story of what it means to be human, in my estimation. The small humanity set against a vast backdrop of – that’s mystical and historical and lots of themes in the play of light and darkness, blindness and sight.

CAVANAUGH: And as I said in the beginning, they meet on Christmas Eve in a house to play cards, drink a little, drink a lot.

SONNENBERG: Drink a lot.

CAVANAUGH: And who is – how does the mysterious stranger enter into the picture?

SONNENBERG: He’s picked up by a friend of the family and invited down on Christmas Eve for a game – the tradition of the card game on Christmas Eve.

CAVANAUGH: So, Sam, you do play this mysterious stranger, the Prince of Darkness. Tell us about this version because I don’t think we’re giving anything away to tell people that this actually is Satan.

WOODHOUSE: Oh, yes, he is. He’s Satan incarnated actually. I don’t want to tell you too much, Maureen, actually but very much the presence of the devil on Christmas Eve, you know, the just before what some consider the holiest day of the year is certainly what the playwright’s playing with here. As he said – is quoted as saying if you want to put God in a play, just make sure the devil’s onstage and God will automatically be there.

CAVANAUGH: And this version of Satan, though, you know, we see Satan in many guises. Is this the Satan that we meet in Milton’s “Paradise Lost?” The very tormented creature?

WOODHOUSE: I – This is a being who has entered a man’s body and possesses and walks the Earth and rides the ocean with a great deal of loneliness and certainly torment and a unending, everlasting quest.

CAVANAUGH: And hence the name of the play, “The Seafarer.”

WOODHOUSE: “The Seafarer,” yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Taken from that old, old Anglo Saxon poem…


CAVANAUGH: …”The Seafarer.” What can you tell us about that and how does that inform the play? Delicia?

SONNENBERG: Oh, sure. The – Sam’s character obviously, Mr. Lockhart, is the – what the poem is – who the poem is referring to but I think in some ways all of these characters are adrift.


SONNENBERG: And this – and Mr. Lockhart comes in and has a profound change on all of them. And so they go from adrift to a kind of togetherness.

CAVANAUGH: And part of that Seafarer poem is comparing how lovely life is on land as opposed to being this – being doomed to having to go on the sea and be wet and cold and all of that. Is Satan comparing his life to the lives of these, what an ordinary person might see as, four rather lost and depressed men on Christmas Eve.

WOODHOUSE: Yes, he’s comparing it because human beings, and particularly the men that he visits on Christmas Eve, have something that he does not and that is brotherhood and that is love.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, how fascinating.


CAVANAUGH: Is this a play about religion or morality?

WOODHOUSE: Well, it’s a very moral play. It’s not a treatise on religion but it is very much about good and evil and love and loneliness and isolation and togetherness and despite how difficult and challenging life can be, what happens when human beings can come together. It’s also a play that has a bit of a miracle in it.


WOODHOUSE: I’m not going to tell you what it is.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right. You can keep that secret. But you are going to read a scene for us, Sam.


CAVANAUGH: And could you set that up for us?

WOODHOUSE: Well, we’ve talked a bit – Mr. Lockhart comes to the house of the Harkin brothers to play cards and they ask him do you play a lot of cards, Mr. Lockhart? And he answers the question…

CAVANAUGH: Please do. Sam Woodhouse.

WOODHOUSE: …by saying…

(audio of Woodhouse performing a monologue from “The Seafarer”)

CAVANAUGH: That’s Sam Woodhouse reading a monologue from the play “The Seafarer,” which is on display, it’s being produced by the San Diego Rep and it is at the Lyceum Theatre in downtown Horton Plaza. Thank you for that, Sam.

WOODHOUSE: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: Delicia, you’ve worked with Sam for a long time. He has served as a kind of mentor to you, so what is it like directing him?

SONNENBERG: I’ve directed him before in “Proof.” But Sam is – One of the things that I love about Sam in general—I haven’t said this to him in a long time—but Sam is a great collaborator. He always was when I worked with him. So working with him as an actor is no different than working with any other actor. He is not the artistic director when he’s in the rehearsal room. He’s an actor like all the rest of the actors, and I think that’s a gift to the whole company.

CAVANAUGH: Great. Now, Sam, you mentioned that you actually did speak with the playwright…


CAVANAUGH: …Conor McPherson. You went to Ireland…

WOODHOUSE: I went to Ireland.

CAVANAUGH: …to interview him.


CAVANAUGH: What did he say about this supernatural element, perhaps this miracle in the play?

WOODHOUSE: Well, the question was, and I believe it was Delicia’s question, ask him what is the separation between natural and the supernatural in the Irish culture. And he went, his immediate response, there is no separation. The natural and the supernatural coexist in my culture every day of the year.

CAVANAUGH: And in addition to deriving inspiration from the poem “The Seafarer,” he also mentioned something having to do with a Hellfire Club?

WOODHOUSE: Yes. Yes. The Hellfire Club. The infamous club where gentlemen would close the doors and lock the door and play cards and occasionally the Prince of Darkness would show up to play cards.

CAVANAUGH: Now, we have someone on the line joining us to tell us specifically about the Hellfire Club and, oh, how that might inspire “The Seafarer” play. And Denys Horgan is on the phone with us. Good morning, Denys. Welcome to These Days.

DENYS HORGAN (Writer/Editor): Good morning.


HORGAN: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: I should get your credentials on this. You did grow up in Dublin, is that correct, Denys?

HORGAN: I grew up in Dublin and before I went to bed every night, looked out my bedroom window and I could see the Dublin mountains and on the very top of one of the foothills, the Hellfire Club. And the first thing I would see every morning when I’d wake up, there would be the Hellfire Club.

CAVANAUGH: What went on in the Hellfire Club, Denys?

HORGAN: Well, the Hellfire Club was where the idle rich and infamous would meet and raise hell.

CAVANAUGH: Aptly named then.


CAVANAUGH: And in what way would they raise hell?

HORGAN: Well, these were the landed gentry, you know, of British stock who lived an extraordinary luxurious life alongside a life of, you know, total poverty, side by side with the squalor of the Irish peasants. And they would meet there and play cards, that was one of the things they did, and drink heavily. And reputedly they also worshiped Satan.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, so would he show up to these card games? Have you heard?

HORGAN: Well, they had black masses and they sacrificed once, for instance, a black cat. Another time they were supposed to have sacrificed a dwarf. And, in fact, in 1971, a skeleton of a dwarf along with a brass statue was found in a field not far away.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I don’t know if – I think we have too much information on this now, Denys.

HORGAN: Well, they played cards and one dark and – one dark and stormy night there was a bang on the door and they opened it and there was this dark stranger soaked to the skin. They let him in, he began to play cards, and the thing about it was, he won every single time. Couldn’t understand that. When one of the other card players dropped his cards and went down to pick it up, when he saw – he looked down and he saw that the man had cloven hoofs. It was the devil.


HORGAN: And immediately he vanished in a puff of smoke and the place was burned to the ground.


HORGAN: Now there’s another version of that. The other version is that a fire broke out when somebody spilled a glass of brandy and everybody was too drunk to escape, you know, the…

CAVANAUGH: I like the first story. I like the first story.

HORGAN: But the place is – the place is now a ruin and, certainly, signs of fire. It’s been burnt down, no question about it.

CAVANAUGH: Denys Horgan is an editor and a writer. He grew up in Dublin close to the Hellfire Club and he informed our conversation about what that is. Thank you so much, Denys, for speaking with us.

HORGAN: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Ron Choularton, you play the lead character in the play named James “Sharky” Harkin. Can you tell us about how you approach this character in “The Seafarer” play?

CHOULARTON: I’ll first tell you I won’t be inviting any little people to my parties. Yes. Sharky as a character – as an actor approaching a role, as most actor’ll attest to, this is very difficult because usually in a role as significant as this in a play, you have lots and lots of lines. In this case, it’s not that. And it’s more you’re onstage a lot of the time not speaking. And that’s one of the hardest things to do on the stage. He’s also somewhat of a – not a typical person. You know, I think as human beings, when we come across other human beings after – for more than 30 seconds, we automatically we begin assessing each other. Who is this person and what are they – you know, what can I expect from this person. Sharky’s certainly not an easy person to assess or measure. He’s somewhat enigmatic. There, there’s a KPBS word, right.

CAVANAUGH: It certainly is. Thank you for that.

CHOULARTON: And how many syllables in… Anyway, so he’s very much this way. And it’s difficult for his peers, his family, his ex-wife now and his children and, certainly, hopefully, the audience to assess this man.

CAVANAUGH: Now you are – and Sam are going to read a scene for us. Can you set that scene up for us?

CHOULARTON: Yes, this is where the stranger—the mysterious stranger at this point—tries to nudge Sharky’s memory as to who he is and where they met and what went on approximately 25 years ago.

(audio of scene from “The Seafarer” performed by Choularton and Woodhouse)

CAVANAUGH: That’s Sam Woodhouse and Ron Choularton performing a scene from the play “The Seafarer,” which is the production now at the San Diego Rep at the Lyceum Theatre. You know, one of the interesting aspects, I think, of this play is that all the characters are in various stages of drunkenness during the course of the play. And I want to – I wonder if I could ask you, starting with you, Ron, how do you play that without overplaying it?

CHOULARTON: Well, there’s tricks. It’s a little bit like, you know, people ask how do people learn lines. There’s no fixed way. It’s up to an individual. But generally speaking, you walk – an exercise by anybody, walk into any bar and look around and tell me who’s drunk.

CAVANAUGH: It’s sometimes hard.

CHOULARTON: Very hard.


CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah.

CHOULARTON: And so there’s some people after two drinks they’re obviously drunk. If you know them, they’ll get louder, they’ll get giggly, they’ll – unfortunately, some people get violent. But you don’t want to be stereotypical. And the stereotypical drunk, as we all know, is the stumbling, blah-la-la-la, you know. That’s not the typical drunk, although he does exist. In our case, that’s not the situation because some of the – one in particular drinking sessions and card game sessions goes on for hours and hours and hours.


CHOULARTON: And anybody who does drink and has done this knows that after eight hours of drinking sometimes you feel quite coherent and quite – even though the next morning you wake up and you forget but at that moment you don’t appear to be obviously drunk unless somebody stone cold sober sits in the corner and they can observe you and they know you and they…


CHOULARTON: …know your habits.



CAVANAUGH: Delicia, you direct this play and it’s – you say that each of these characters have to be drunk in their own special way, and I’m interested in how you go about looking and checking and making sure that nobody’s overdoing it. How do you direct this part of the play?

SONNENBERG: Well, mostly the guys are really good at this because we’re all on the same page. I mean, there’s a lot of text while – when they’ve done a lot of drinking. And so they’re all smart enough actors to know they can’t do the slurring thing…


SONNENBERG: …because the audience misses that. There are particular parts in the play where we get to – the playwright has done a brilliant job of this, where we get to see the effects of the alcohol and also Conor, in his playwright notes, wrote specific direct – sort of specific stage directions about how each character’s – how alcohol affects them. And so really it’s – we have a lot of information so we can just play the text.

CAVANAUGH: We have talked about the mystical aspects of the play, we’ve talked about the Hellfire Club, we haven’t really talked a great deal about how humorous this play is, though. It’s a great deal of fun even though the issues we talk about—that you talk about in the play—are very deep and profound at times. It’s been described by New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley as a thinking man’s, and I would say thinking woman’s…

SONNENBERG: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: …”It’s a Wonderful Life.” And would you agree with that, Sam?

WOODHOUSE: Oh, I would. And I think what he’s referring to is the fact that it does take place on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. It is a holiday story. The characters gather to celebrate Christmas. And yet it embraces, at the holiday, both the dark side and the light side of the holiday. And it’s not an escape from life but a further immersion. I mean, check out for a moment, stop your work life, get together with your buddies and celebrate, and what comes out, what’s revealed. And as Conor’s just so fascinated in all of his plays by the thought that without darkness, there is no light, without light there is no darkness, that you must have, you know, up to have down…


WOODHOUSE: …if you will, night to have day.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Now, Delicia, just on the face of it, though, as we – echoing my first question now that we know so much more about this play, it is a different kind of a holiday fare though. When people think of going to a Christmas play, it’s not “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

SONNENBERG: No, it’s not. I mean, Sam has just talked about this so well but it’s because it doesn’t live on the surface, it does delve into the darkness and that. And I think a lot of the humor, getting back to your original question, comes out of what we recognize. We all have families and at the holidays our families are particularly funny, not in the moment but years later…

CAVANAUGH: I’m glad you added that.

SONNENBERG: Years later when we think about that Thanksgiving dinner or that Christmas dinner or that Christmas night of Uncle Whoever getting plastered, it’s hilarious. So I think that he’s, the playwright, has beautifully captured what it means to be a family or a group of friends.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Sam, let me ask you about the accents. Have you had a dialogue coach?

WOODHOUSE: Yes. We work with Grace Delaney who is, herself, from Dublin. She’s been working with us for quite awhile in the joyous and ongoing challenge of…


WOODHOUSE: …finding the Irish.

CAVANAUGH: You know, a real, true, deep Irish accent is rather difficult to understand onstage and…

WOODHOUSE: Well, and of course there are many true, deep…


WOODHOUSE: …authentic Irish accents just like there are many…


WOODHOUSE: …in any culture. There are many, many variations. So, yes, absolutely. No, we are not – We are not doing a deep, deep country, thick accent because it wouldn’t be understandable in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Indeed, it wouldn’t.


CAVANAUGH: Sometimes it’s not understandable when it’s your relative.

WOODHOUSE: I see, Maureen.

SONNENBERG: And sometimes we have to – only once or twice where there’s a word that you say a particular way but for the audience, I asked Grace, can you Americanize it just a little…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Umm-hmm.

SONNENBERG: …so we know what the word is, so it doesn’t sound like a different word.

CAVANAUGH: As we wrap up here, let me ask you, Ron – let me go round, if I may, is there redemption for these characters?

CHOULARTON: Oh, yeah. Yes. Oh, absolutely. Most of the characters. Yeah, that definitely comes through and also another word which echoes through the play is ‘change.’ And change is so – change and beliefs and McPherson shoots for beliefs. He challenges our beliefs, as people in the world. And he’s done it before in one of his other plays I’ve done, “St. Nicholas” and it’s to do with vampires, you know, which everyone knows vampires, you know. He takes away the stereotypical – our stereotypical views and beliefs, and in this case it’s, you know, Satan himself. Yes, there is this – some beautiful redemption and very emotional, yeah. Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: And would you agree, Sam?

WOODHOUSE: In a powerful, powerful revelation of brotherly love, and despite all of the crap in life love will prevail and love will win out.

CAVANAUGH: And is that redemption what makes this play fit for the holidays?

SONNENBERG: Yeah, it’s absolutely because we all, especially when you have a character like Satan, you have to – you can’t help but compare humanity against it and – and how we are. Even at our worst, we do have hope for redemption.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you all so much for coming in and talking about the play and for reading the certain sections of the play for us. Thanks so much.

WOODHOUSE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: My guests have been Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, director of the San Diego production of "The Seafarer." Sam Woodhouse is the San Diego Rep's Artistic Director, playing the Prince of Darkness. And Ron Choularton plays the character of Sharky in "The Seafarer." Now I want to let everyone know opening night of “The Seafarer” is tomorrow at 8:00 p.m. and the play runs through December 13th at the Lyceum Theatre in downtown’s Horton Plaza. Now stay with us, coming up next, it’s the Weekend Preview right here on These Days. And you’re listening to These Days on KPBS.