Fight or go with the flow. Not the flashiest of life's dilemmas, I suppose, but it sure comes up a lot in work and love. Those who know which to choose at which moment are lucky sods; most of us just flail around, wondering.
At one point in "Port Authority," Conor McPherson's typically eloquent and wholly disquieting exploration of three generations of modern Irish manhood, the oldest of the men addressing us pretty much boils his life down to that deep question.
Characters invariably stare down death in McPherson's plays, as anyone who saw "The Seafarer" at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company or "Shining City" at the Goodman Theatre, will recall. They also spin yarns, which, depending on the story or the way it is told, could be construed as a fight or a capitulation to life's tough trajectory. McPherson also is very much a poet of regret.
In perhaps the saddest and most poignant moment of a play that has a deep kinship with melancholy, the character of Joe (Patrick Clear) wryly observes that even the regretful eventually weary of their own remorse, which set me off Wednesday night on this deep, internal McPherson dive wondering whether that might be considered a paradoxically optimistic observation or merely an indication of shattering loneliness.
I once spent a cold December day with McPherson in Dun Laoghaire, Ireland, whose streets infuse this play. He is a questioner and a lover of phrases that dance with being non sequiturs — "you fool yourself that God has not seen you" — but never quite commit either way. It is not hard to see the three men of "Port Authority" as the author at different stages of his life. But that's just one possibility.
McPherson is just that kind of writer; he's every bit as good, and as interested in mortality, as the Irish greats. But he often writes of the power of love, even if it comes to a screeching halt when you find your girl snogging with another under an oil tank. It happens. In this play actually. A symptom, perchance of too much going with the flow.
You would not call "Port Authority" a major McPherson work (the title does not refer to the bus terminal in New York, although speaking of shattering loneliness ...). The piece, first produced in Dublin in 2001 although (to the best of my knowledge) not previously produced professionally in Chicago, is composed of three modestly interlaced monologues, delivered directly to the audience by characters unaware of each other. There is much recounting of experiences in the past tense. The show is not traditionally dramatic. It requires careful attention.
The characters are ordinary Irishmen, I suppose, if there could be said to be such a thing.
Young Kevin (Rob Fenton) is of an age when sex can assuage despair, especially if you are entranced with a girl with curly hair. Dermot (John Hoogenakker) stares down the stress of middle age with booze and a first-class ticket to a new job in America.
Mundane Joe, the oldest, unspools recollections while noting that he was always just like everyone else. I suppose we must believe him.
The setting (not that you'd know it from a design by Martin Andrew that struck me as confounding more than illuminating) is perhaps a bus station, although McPherson also notes the piece is set "in the theater," perhaps because he'd like to leave it open that this trio are explaining themselves to their maker, the point of judgment being a long-standing McPherson obsession.
Director William Brown clearly has worked closely with his actors, all of whom are honest, resonant and moving.
The piece, which is a tad smooth and overarticulate, could use more edge and bite, which would help infuse the show with higher stakes. All three of these men become familiar with the difficulty of holding it together, but only Hoogenakker, whose performance is unstinting, really shows us the whites of his eyes, despite us being up close and personal.
Clear captures the charm of his fellow but needs more of the deep-seated sorrow of this senior Mr. Cellophane, craving sensation. Fenton gets a lot of the way there (he makes great sex sound tediously like everyone's great sex), but he needs more familiarity with the panic attacks that afflict all of us in our early 20s, even when spending quality time with a girl with curly hair. Maybe it was just me with those attacks. And, I suspect, McPherson, who has them on the page for our great theatrical pleasure.
McPherson's plays often surprise actors and directors by how far they need to go to find their essence. The language in this piece is just beautiful and its human insights profound. In some of the best moments that Brown and these actors find, it can feel like you are watching yourself now, in the past and in the future, all at once, learning little. What chance do we have? Going with the flow avoids peril that usually proves pointless, yet fighting is essential to life.
When: Through Feb. 16
Where: Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe
Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
Tickets: $35-70 at 847-242-6000 or writerstheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun