Tis the season for bright, shiny holiday musicals—unless you’re Jack Sbarbori. The artistic director of the Bethesda-based Quotidian Theatre Company (QTC) is staging something deep, dark and Dublin-based: “The Night Alive” by Irish playwright Conor McPherson.
“It’s just the honesty—the man has so much to offer,” said Sbarbori, noting that despite doing only three productions a year, QTC has staged nine of McPherson’s works. “It’s not only moving; there’s humor in it, too. It’s mainly looking at life and seeing how people react to it, how they survive.
“I don’t know how he’s able to come up with it, but he does. It’s just been a pleasure to do his work.”
Sbarbori, whose wife, Stephanie Mumford, co-founded QTC 18 years ago, says he has dreamed of directing “The Night Alive” since the couple saw its stateside debut at Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre Company in 2013.
It’s his favorite work by McPherson, he said, while he acknowledged that “when you’re working on a show, just about everything you’re working on is your favorite.
“At first, we were interested in playwrights such as Chekov; we had good productions of Horton Foote’s work, and now McPherson. It’s really hard to describe just what he offers, but he makes people stop and think. That’s something McPherson can do: really push you in a way that you understand the human condition.”
So, what is “The Night Alive?” Written in 2013 by the Dublin-born-and-educated playwright perhaps best-known for “The Weir,” the play debuted in London before crossing the pond and winning the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play. “The Night Alive” examines the dead-end lives of friends Tommy and Doc, scheming for and dreaming about a better future from a rundown room in a Dublin house. It examines the way the past impacts the future, and shows how the decisions people make can change their lives in unexpected ways.
“You can tell it’s a McPherson show, certainly, but it’s also something new for him,” said Sbarbori. “He’s had a lot of plays which include the supernatural along with the natural flow of things in the play. In this particular play, there’s so much there. You do have to pay attention to everything that’s happening; then it’s quite easy for people to understand what’s going on.”
And speaking of What’s Going On, Sbarbori says that the Marvin Gaye pop classic has its own part to play in the McPherson drama, (along with another song, Father John Misty’s Funtimes in Babylon).
“It’s basically ‘What’s Going On?’” he explained. “’I don’t understand how life is doing this to me—or to everyone else—and I want to know: How can I understand it?’”
Understanding what’s going on is what makes the play so appealing to audiences who come to the theater to be challenged, engaged and transported. Sbarbori spoke carefully, ever-vigilant against disclosing the spoilers he knows are the hallmark of any McPherson work.
Plot wise, though, he’s willing to provide a rough sketch.
“There’s basically five people in the play, and they’ve had a rough time of life,” he said. “No one’s really prospered, and they don’t have a clue of what their life should be or how it can be made better—but they keep trying.”
By the time the play is over, he added, some of the characters will have an idea of “what’s going on,” but the audience must come to their own conclusions. McPherson doesn’t provide definitive answers, but rather allows theatergoers to figure it out for themselves—with the help of a talented QTC cast.
“As a director, I’ve been really fortunate,” Sbarbori said. “Three of the five players are actors I’ve worked with before, also on McPherson plays. That provided an immediate comfortable zone for me.
“As I predicted they all came through with flying colors.”
Sbarbori declared the cast—veterans Matthew Vaky as Tommy, David Dubov as Doc and Chelsea Mayo as Aimee, plus QTC newcomers Joe Palka as Maurice and Grant Cloyd as Kenneth—“one of our strongest.”
“It was clear in the case of Matthew, there was just something about him,” he said. “And with all the others, too. Wonderful performances.
“I feel really fortunate as a director—so happy that things just clicked.”
Quotidian Theatre Company presents Conor McPherson’s “The Night Alive” through Nov. 20 at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. Call 301-816-1023 or visit https://quotidiantheatre.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.