On opening night of Inis Nua Theatre’s latest production, “The Night Alive,” thespian Mike Dees was feeling a little anxious in the stage’s wings.
Marking his inaugural role tackling a multidimensional character, the Dickinson Narrows resident, who customarily provides comedic relief, was bound to feel some first-night jitters a couple of weeks ago.
But, as he walked on the stage of the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, Dees reminded himself, “Just tell the story.”
Storytelling, he explains, is the centerpiece of contemporary British Isles plays, which comprise the repertoire of Inis Nua Theatre, a nonprofit Philadelphia-based company producing “contemporary, provocative” plays originating from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales.
“I feel like all of the stories – they’re all good stories,” Dees said. “It’s just storytelling. People from that area, especially Ireland, they’re very much into storytelling and oral tradition and histories. So, the big thing is, really, helping to tell a story…These are all the stories about people from that area. But they also resonate with people all over the world, especially in Philly.”
For the Northeast Philadelphia native, who now resides around 7th and Tasker streets, “The Night Alive,” a 2013 critically acclaimed play written by Tony Award-nominated playwright Conor McPherson, marks Dees’ fifth production with Inis Nua in 15 years.
All of the productions he’s pursued with the troupe were from Irish descent, including “The Night Alive,” which surrounds the story of a man named Tommy living in a dilapidated apartment in modern-day Dublin as he struggles from a recent divorce and losing his job.
Tommy’s life is disrupted, though, when he rescues a prostitute from being attacked on the streets. Tommy, alongside his Uncle Maurice and friend Doc, played by Dees, grapple with their lonely and unfilled lives amidst the woman’s arrival.
“I always make a joke and say – Irish plays – you either laugh until you cry or you laugh until you’re horrified,” Dees said. “…I think this play is really interesting, because it’s very different from some of those other ones.”
Dees, who studied psychology at La Salle University before receiving his master’s degree in theater from Villanova in 2004, says he was riveted by the story upon first receiving the script.
Though his jocular character is described as being “always five to seven seconds behind everyone else,” Dees says Doc undergoes more emotional development than his prior roles with Inis Nua.
“I love this, because I do get to tap into stuff that I don’t usually get to use,” Dees said. “…You’re the funny, quirky character and you just sort of live in that world for a long time, but for this – to really have moments where I find myself, even without trying, I just find myself working up into tears on stage.”
Originally premiering in London before transferring Off-Broadway, “The Night Alive,” which is actually experiencing its Philadelphia premiere through Inis Nua, evokes universal sentiments despite being set in Europe.
Though the majority of British Isles productions offer a sense of global generality, Dees thinks this play, in particular, will resonate with Philadelphia audiences as he notices parallels between urban living across the world.
“We have some of the same issues and struggles that these people do, too,” he said. “This play very much deals with a lot of themes of loneliness and isolation even though you’re surrounded by other people, you don’t always feel connected. We’re surrounded in this community, but there’s still a sense of isolation sometimes…The idea that there is somebody in Ireland who feels the exact same way.”
In fostering the lonely headspace enveloping his character, some of Dees’ preparation came rather naturally.
Dees, who relocated to South Philadelphia about five years ago, says he often finds himself feeling distanced from his neighbors.
Since his parents are Grays Ferry natives, Dees recalls a time when there was, as some may perceive, a stronger sense of community in South Philadelphia.
“I do love the idea that everybody is sort of looking for a connection,” he said. “Even living down in South Philly, every once in a while it’s like, ‘I don’t know my neighbor’…I do love the idea that these (characters) are really trying to find just a sense of where they are and still maintain a humor about it but just trying to find where you fit in in the world.”
Though “The Night Alive,” which runs at the Louis Bluver Theatre through Oct. 27, encompasses some uncomfortable and dark topics, including touching on notions of religion, the story concludes on a somewhat hopeful note.
For audiences, Dees hopes they recognize the small delights of life. When individuals leave the theater, perhaps, they’ll see their situations in a slightly different light – much like the characters do by the end of the story.
“Maybe, not everything is perfect,” he said. “Maybe the world is not perfect. But there’s a way to find peace with that, with opening up to the people around you…to find the joy in what’s around you. There’s so much negativity in the world. And, when things seem like they’re at their lowest, how do you find the joy in the little things – the everyday little things?”
For more information, visit: https://inisnuatheatre.org/show/night-alive.