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FUSION brings ‘The Night Alive’ to life

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Last year FUSION Theatre graced Albuquerque with a wonderful production of Enda Walsh’s “The New Electric Ballroom,” a forceful reminder that the tiny island of Ireland continues to produce some of the most exciting and important drama.

This year FUSION has again brought a contemporary Irish master to Albuquerque, and again the experience is revelatory. In Conor McPherson’s “The Night Alive” the mundane, ordinary and drab is shot through at odd moments with the transcendent and numinous, which is all the more powerful for its juxtaposition with the banal, and for its unpredictability and evanescence.

The play begins when Tommy, a lonely and slovenly middle aged man estranged from his wife and children, brings home a badly beaten young woman (Aimee) to nurse and heal. The biblical worldview that suffuses so much of McPherson’s drama — not least his sublime 2006 play, “The Seafarer” — is apparent right away in this contemporary rendition of the story of the Good Samaritan.

As it happens, Tommy is largely responsible for the “disabled” Doc also, although his ability to maintain his patience and continue to care for the needy Doc is tested through the course of the play.

McPherson counters Tommy’s heeding of the gospel call to neighbor love with the other man in Aimee’s life, Kenneth, a satanic figure of pure wanton destruction, hatred and violence.

Like so many of the Irish masters, McPherson’s play is lyrical, suffused with pathos and compassion, and very funny. A simple retelling of the plot can only disfigure the artistry, and spoil the shocking moments that appear amid the more banal yet entertaining banter of the rich characters that McPherson has drawn and that the talented cast brings to life.

Bruce Holmes is believable and generally effective as the kind-hearted yet strained Tommy, although I wish he would take advantage of the wonderful intimacy of The Cell. The small space gives actors the opportunity to be as nuanced, soft-spoken, and subtle as a film actor, and Holmes’s delivery is often too vocally powerful for the space and too often stays on the same register. When he does bring the volume down and allow the meaning of the language to come through unforced the result is brilliant.

The other actors are all excellent, and well adapted to the space. Caitlin Aase captures the inner life of Aimee quite well while Matthew Van Wettering is wonderfully diabolical as Kenneth. Michael Samuel Kaplan’s Doc became more and more interesting to me as the play proceeded. There is a long tradition of the Holy Fool in literature, and Kaplan has brought his own unique gifts to McPherson’s laudable addition to world literature. John Dennis Johnston is excellent as Maurice, the lonely old alcoholic landlord, shifting emotional tone and coloration with easy mastery and great subtlety.

Dennis Gromelski’s set is perfect, and the Van Morrison songs a delight. One of the highlights of the evening comes when Tommy, Aimee and Doc engage in an impromptu dance and sing along to Marvin Gay’s masterpiece, “What’s Going On,” only to be rudely interrupted by Maurice. It is a moment of pure theater, ineffably joyous and wonderful; and the rapid transition from banality to spontaneous joy and synchronous movement to angry and meaningless repression is the perfect metaphor for that glorious transcendence that sometimes breaks into our mundane lives, although it is all too fleeting.

“The Night Alive” is playing at The Cell through Nov. 22. Go to fusionnm.org or call 505-766-9412 for tickets and additional information.

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