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Sugan Theatre captures subtleties of 'Sanctuary'

There is something instantly enveloping about watching a gathering of lost souls in the theater. Think of Eugene O'Neill's ''The Iceman Cometh" or Tennessee Williams's ''Camino Real," plays that stir audiences by making them aware of their common humanity with all creatures, great or fallen.

The three main characters in Irish playwright Tom Murphy's finely etched ''The Sanctuary Lamp" haven't fallen far in terms of transgressions against others. As is evident in the Sugan Theatre Company's lovely new production of the 1975 play, they have simply reached bottom in terms of the melancholy that fills their souls. Their last beacon of hope is the sanctuary of a Catholic church in which the three spiritual exiles take up short-term residence.

That the church, or specifically the lamp that shines some holy light on their situations, should serve that role might come as a surprise to those who know that most of the best contemporary Irish playwrights are not particularly fond of what the church has wrought in Ireland.

Nor is Murphy, who turns the confessional on its head in ''The Sanctuary Lamp," making it a place of comfort and nurture rather than of punishment and guilt. But there is still hope in Murphy's world for what the church at its best represents -- not only a sanctuary from the sadness of the world, but a place to gather the hope and strength needed to leave the church and get back into the life of the world with a lighter soul.

Carmel O'Reilly, the head of Sugan and the director of this production, knows all about sacred spaces, as she and set designer J. Michael Griggs make brilliant use of the new Roberts Studio Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. The sense of spaciousness and the brown earth tones, spotted with gold, cast a sense of warmth that the most lapsed of Catholics could respond to. John R. Malinowki's lighting is a work of art in itself.

But it isn't just the look of the piece. O'Reilly writes in the program notes that Murphy is Ireland's greatest living playwright -- high praise coming from the head of an Irish company that has produced Brian Friel, Martin McDonagh, and Conor McPherson to great acclaim. She goes on to say that he is ''remarkably unknown on this side of the Atlantic."

I haven't seen or read enough of Murphy's work to know whether I agree with O'Reilly about his place at the top of the impressive list of Irish writers, but after seeing this and a couple of other Sugan productions of his plays, it isn't surprising that he isn't as well known as the others.

There isn't the scabrous sense of humor of McDonough, the rivetingly rhythmic storytelling of McPherson, or the easy transcendence, sometimes too easy transcendence, of Friel.

All those qualities are there in ''The Sanctuary Lamp" -- humor, storytelling, and transcendence. But the actors have to work at bringing them out, and the audiences need to be attentive to the subtleties and silences that complement the gorgeous arias Murphy gives his characters.

Take this speech by the main character, Harry, who has been hired to be a kind of caretaker for the church. He thinks he's by himself when he says, ''The silence turns to loneliness, Jesus? Time passing. . . . My spirit is unwell, too. They've been trying to crush my life. . . . Suppose in exchange for the accommodation I engage to make conversation -- break the back of night for you?"

O'Reilly has found three actors who get to the heart and soul of Murphy's writing. Nigel Gore as Harry, a former circus strongman, uses gruff body language to convey his character's demoralization and confusion as he begs a job from the monsignor. Stacy Fischer is winning as the 16-year-old Maudie, tugging at her sweater as if it might be a suit of armor to protect her from those who would do her ill, which includes just about everyone in her life except Harry. And Aidan Parkinson as Francisco, who stole Harry's wife, has charisma as a rake with just the right touch of innocence. (Jackson Royal is not as impressive in the lesser role of the monsignor.)

''The Sanctuary Lamp" was notable when it first came out for being so accusatory of the church, particularly in Francisco's rage at the institution -- ''Founded in blood, continued in blood, crusaded in blood, inquisitioned in blood, divided in blood." Now that such anger is common, it's remarkable how Murphy's prose takes us in different directions, toward an acceptance of a sense that the church might play a part in making life better.

As Francisco concludes, ''It isn't half bad down here."

It isn't half bad at the Roberts Theatre these days, either.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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