Smile Politely

“What’s Going On?” in The Night Alive

For their 45th season, the Celebration Theatre Company at the Station Theatre opened with a strong, dynamic, and thoughtful “family room” piece by Conor McPherson. The Night Alive, winner of the 2013-2014 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, focuses on four Dubliners brought together in a crumbling Edwardian house over a series of days. The play centers around Tommy (Gary Ambler), a struggling but well-meaning man laid low by life’s hardships. One night he brings Aimee (Lindsey Gates-Markel), a young woman also struggling to get by in a rough life, into his flat to take care of her bloody nose. What eventually transpires is a series of events that bring them closer together and, ultimately, keep them apart. To an audience of over forty people, the Celebration Theatre Company under the direction of Kay Bohannon Holley gave a fantastic performance worth seeing and hearing.

What truly made The Night Alive stand out as exceptional were the performances of Ambler, Gates-Markel, David Butler, James “Jim” Kotowski, and Mathew Green. The actors do an amazing job of bringing these characters to life in a fictional flat in Dublin. Ambler’s Tommy is both pathetic and sympathetic as seen in the opening scene when he offers Aimee a biscuit (and it’s not a digestive biscuit). Gates-Markel’s Aimee is stoic but good humored, willing to accept charity but not willing to share personal information. Gates-Markel’s choices are different from Ambler’s, and those choices help to keep the play grounded in reality.

Similarly, Kotowski’s loveable and loyal Doc’s mental miscues, physical ticks, and altered speech help to endear the audience to him. Like Tommy, we want to protect and take care of Doc, but unlike Tommy, we, the audience members, may be more willing to take responsibility for his prophetic dreams. This relationship is contrasted with the one between Uncle Maurice (Butler) and Tommy. Maurice takes care of Tommy out of familial responsibility, but he does not want to care for his moocher of a nephew. Butler as Maurice plays the stodgy elderly man as very straight until the second act’s opening scene. Then he becomes a hurt, drunk, remorseful, and frustrated individual who is tired of being taken advantage of by Tommy (and of having his turnips stolen out of his garden by Doc). It’s a dramatic turn after a previously dramatic scene at the end of the first act.

When Green’s brutish and malevolent Kenneth walks through the French doors of the flat, his presence as a menace and threat to the fragile eco-system of Tommy’s dumpy flat in Maurice’s Edwardian house is almost palpable. Kenneth is well-dressed and seems put together, but as he threatens Doc, he steps closer than is comfortable and his fingers flick in a nervous move to become a fist. These little details make Kenneth stand out from the others like a drop of red blood in a pool of clear water. 

On top of the performances, the crew and stage design along with the direction of the play added to the play’s believability. Malia Andrus accentuates each character’s social status through their attire with Maurice’s nice suits and Tommy’s less-than clean looking shirts. Doc’s worn coveralls also suggest a certain economic level and occupation. As the drama ratchets up, the familiar costumes change for both comedic and dramatic effect. The set design by Nicholas James Schwartz helps to make the play engaging. Magazines, newspapers, and books are scattered around and under the single twin bed. Worn boxers hang off the arm chair. Bags of garbage and clothes are piled on top of each other while empty paper towel rolls have a party on the bathroom floor. Aside from Christmas lights still up from the previous year, vintage travel posters of Finland line the walls. In a place of honor, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album from 1971 hangs above Tommy’s bed. These visuals play an important role in the play, but an interesting choice is the addition of a painting behind the bathroom door. The painting depicts a shining light streaming through an open door and into a darkened room. It is a visual metaphorical cue, but a subtle one since the play’s metaphor doesn’t come until the very end. Add to the play Yen Vi Ho’s sound and light touches and Holley’s direction, The Night Alive is a well-thought out production.

Ultimately, The Night Alive is a play about humanity. The Celebration Theatre Company bring their finest and best to an engaging dramatic production. Everything seems to click into place for them with this play.

The Night Alive runs through October 22nd at the Station Theatre (223 N. Broadway Avenue, Urbana). All performances begin at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday night tickets are $15 while Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday tickets are $10. You can reserve your tickets online or by leaving a voicemail at the Ticket Office at (217) 384-4000.

Sarah Keim is a contributing writer for Smile Politely’s Arts section. She’s a bit of recluse on social media, but you might bump into her out in the wilds of C-U. Frequent sightings occur at farmers’ markets, movie theaters, and libraries.


All images by Scott Wells…

Scott is a U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of Illinois. He has been a photographer and writer for Smile Politely since March of 2015.

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