Intoxicating and otherworldly, TCR’s ‘St. Nicholas’ will linger with you after you leave

Theatre Cedar Rapids Presents 'St. Nicholas'

Brucemore, Cedar Rapids -- through Oct. 17; $25-100

Matthew James in Conor McPherson’s ‘St. Nicholas.’ TCR at Brucemore. — Farrar Design/TCR

Like the protagonist in Conor McPherson’s St. Nicholas, I, too, am struggling to find the perfect words — in my case, to convey my unadulterated awe and affection for Theatre Cedar Rapids’ exquisitely haunting (and hilariously vulgar) production of the 1997 play.

Listening to the drunken, Irish monologue is intoxicating in itself as Mathew James delivers one of the best performances of the season. With a mansion down the hill, deer grazing on the lawn and a soft glow from twinkling lights reminiscent of a place lost in time, I’m still stuck in a fog-like dream similar to the spell of — dare I say — vampires?

Under the direction of TCR Artistic Director Angie Toomsen, James portrays an unnamed, widely acclaimed Dublin-based theatre critic who hates everything — the art he consumes, his fellow “objective observers,” the selective inability to be present in his own family life and, most of all, his pretentious self. But this all begins to shift when he becomes mesmerized by the striking, sensual and ghost-like actress Helen, played by Anna Slife.

Anna Slife and Matthew James in Conor McPherson’s ‘St. Nicholas.’ TCR at Brucemore. — Farrar Design/TCR

Chasing Helen to London (due to his own “mediocre — at best” review of her play), James takes us along on his pursuit in a jealous stupor through pubs, the “tube” and a late-night knocking on her door. What he tries to convince himself is simple fascination is, instead, a lust for the beautiful and chaotic life he longs for while stuck in the domesticity of the “real world.”

But things don’t go as planned (they rarely ever do), and James finds himself alone in a park — or so he thinks. William, a dapper, cool-to-the-touch, British gentleman (also portrayed by Slife) approaches with an ease that consumes James, and the two embark on a deal that provides the miserable drunk with a supernatural haven.

Dramatically transformed, he begins to dabble with the charms of his new-found existence. The last act, however, isn’t a feel-good before-and-after, but rather a reflective narrative on power, the “embodiment of hope” and, for good measure, time travel.

Conor McPherson’s ‘St. Nicholas.’ TCR at Brucemore. — Farrar Design/TCR

In this story, the pursuit of Helen exchanges the gift of a Trojan horse for every superficial desire you’ve ever had, a tale with a bit more bite. The winds of fate and ancient décor have turned in favor of James, who finally possesses control over the very artists whom he could only ever write about.

But as lectures on the art object get tired and the allure of the undead stinks of rotten flesh, a glass of spilt rice reveals that all good things come at a price — and the high life may really just be about pseudo-intellectualism and having somewhere to be when the sun goes down.

Through the use of socially distanced tables, mask requirements, hanging windows and a grand stage (scenic design by S. Benjamin Farrar), Theatre Cedar Rapids and the Brucemore bring a stunning outdoor experience with St. Nicholas. The play runs through Oct. 17; tickets are $100/table of four (limited individual seats available at $25). Arrive early to allow time to find the estate, take in the view and get ready for a night that will remind you what theater is all about.

As the end draws near, the final words hit like a stake to the heart, so don’t forget to bundle up — a cool breeze just may find its way to the back of your neck.

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