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‘The Seafarer’ an alternative to ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Holiday entertainment often includes traditional venues that patrons look forward to every year. It’s also nice to see something fresh and different. This year, there’s an opportunity to check out Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s rousing drama “The Seafarer.” Filled with humor, introspection and an affirmation about life, the San Diego Repertory Theatre production runs Nov. 14 through Dec. 13 at the Lyceum Theatre.

It’s Christmas Eve, which for four lifelong friends means heading to a hideaway for their regular poker game. Festival moods, hidden agendas and too many drinks boil over into a caldron of tension and flaring tempers that become even more unpredictable when a supernatural element enters the equation.

The cast of “The Seafarer” includes Armin Shimerman as the cantankerous but humorous Richard Harkin. Ron Choularton (“Moon For the Misbegotten”) plays his brother, Sharky, who arrives to the festivities with a few surprises. Robert Townsend (“Jekyll and Hyde”) as Nicky is the hustler among the group. Paul Kruse (“The Threepenny Opera”) livens up the evening as the ungainly sidekick Ivan. Rep Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse steps away from the director’s chair to play the mysterious Prince of Darkness. Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, the founding artistic director of MOXIE Theatre, directs the play.

Shimerman (“I Remember Mamma,” “King Lear”) said he fell in love with “The Seafarer” after seeing it twice. He asked his agent to keep an eye out for a new production. He had hoped to play the character of the devil, but ended up with a much bigger role. Richard is totally blind.

“Sharky is also partially blind. It’s kind of a theme in the play,” Shimerman explains. “It’s not simply the physical nature of being blind, but also the spiritual and psychological nature of being blind. It revolves around being able to see reality, but not what life is, until the end of play.”

Shimerman said playing a blind person was totally out of sync with his acting method.

“I was trained to get my ‘life’ from the other actors by looking in their eyes and seeing what they are thinking on stage,” he said. “In this production, I can look at them, but I can’t focus on them or read their facial ticks about what they’re thinking. I’ve found this a plus because I have to see what I’m thinking and feeling instead.”

“The Seafarer” has been called a thinking person’s alternative to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and Shimerman agrees the play and the film have similarities.

“They both have the same feelings about redemption. Both are about getting a second chance and rebirth, especially Sharky.”

Shimerman began his extensive career in San Diego as an apprentice at The Old Globe and has now come full circle. He adores the study of language and finds McPherson almost makes music out of the language in the play. He also likes the fun supernatural and natural element aspects about “The Seafarer.”

“We try to marry the two in the play so the audience will ask, ‘Is that natural or supernatural?’ We want to keep the audience guessing because I think the playwright wants to keep them guessing, as if saying there’s more to like than what we see.”

The play does contain a lot of profanity and the characters are inebriated, so parents should be warned, but Shimerman said patrons will not be disappointed in “The Seafarer.”

“It’s about more than just a party,” he said. “It’s truly about life and relationships. The men are each connected in different ways. The drinking helps the men loosen up, and they have revelations and euphonies they wouldn’t normally have.

“I think patrons will walk away remembering a wonderful evening that made them laugh, but later they’ll keep thinking about what they saw.”

‘The Seafarer’

Who: San Diego Repertory Theatre

When: Nov. 14–Dec.13.

Where: Lyceum Theater, Horton Plaza

Tickets: $18-$47; (619) 544-1000 or www.sdrep.org