Sunday, December 28, 2008

to have and to hold

Illus: Soviet Mayan Playing Cards via bad banana blog

Steppenwolf’s production of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer was solid and satisfying. Still, I stepped out on to Halsted after last evening’s performance, the night strangely warm after a day in the high 50s, the ice and snow of the brittle days before having melted in the rain, wondering: what is it with guys and their poker games?

It seems to me that there’s something about the game of poker -- games of chance in general, maybe, but games of poker especially -- that men are in the habit of elevating to the realm of rite and ritual.

Am I wrong to pin it on the men? After all a woman, Shirley Jackson, wrote The Lottery, which is all about chance and the communal act. Although it’s true that women play poker, both casually and professionally and have even, I’m sure, run themselves equally to ruin, the game of the mythic West and the tables and back rooms of Vegas seem always in the imagination of writers to be played by men. Women appear in cocktail skirts or wifely attire, porting in sandwiches and refreshments, sometimes shaking their heads through the thick smoke and bad behavior.

There’s something monastic about men gathering to play. Objects are arranged and shared according to rules unspoken but understood. Fortunes are driven by brief decisions and the flick of a wrist. Everything depends on the moment of transubstantiation -- when chance intervenes and three of a kind transforms into a full a house.

As with any religious rite, the cascade of consequences that follow (in the pages of literature; in the lyrics of a Kenny Rogers song) from the way the cards are dealt and played carry that tense, tired, sweaty patina of the struggle between self-determination and chance.

The man at the pew is haunted by the same question as the man at the card table: Do we decide, or are these things decided for us?

And the question was there last night on the Steppenwolf stage, a room full of drunk men playing cards with the devil, one with an earlier score to settle, all of them with a lifetime of missed chances and fuck ups to regret. Only one of them waking painfully to the awareness that he played a role in the unhappy events that spilled around him and were his history.

Like a Midnight spent in Mass by a true believer, the game was played and everything changed for this one awakening fellow.

Only it hadn’t. His departure with the devil was long before determined; the certainty of his cold terrifying eternity was foretold by the nuns.

But then it did.

Because layered on top of the game was Christmas, and with it came a sudden, miraculous boozy intervention that might have looked, if it lay in a manger, all the world like redemption, but because it was near-sighted and smelled like whiskey on an old man’s breath it looked an awful lot like dumb luck.

Which can so easily be mistaken for a miracle, under the right circumstances.

Which these were.

The Seafarer
By Conor McPherson
Directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Randall Arney
Featuring ensemble members Francis Guinan, Tom Irwin, John Mahoney and Alan Wilder with Randall Newsome

In the Downstairs Theatre
Thu. December 4, 2008 — Sun. February 8, 2009


Kari said...

nice piece of writing. my mom is a poker playing, whiskey drinking man trapped in a woman's body (though it shows itself teasingly on enough occasions to keep her satisfied). she's got a playful, lusty relationship to cards; she's at her most humorous, self-confident self when she's playing poker, and has a brown cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. she's nearly 80 and doesn't smoke anymore, and has to get her card fix playing bridge with the suburban ladies in richville. at least she wins.

Mikkel said...

Conor McPherson rocks. I must say I prefer the straight alcoholic stuff like Rum and Vodka, to the more mystic Irish catholic stuff which I can't relate to in the same way.

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