The best plays are often two plays in one: the play that unfolds before our eyes and the one that plays out beneath the surface. The latter is all subtext, shadows and hints that tell us (if we’re paying attention) what’s really going on. The Night Alive by Conor McPherson is such a play. Widely regarded as Ireland’s greatest living playwright, McPherson weaves a story about a man whose life has stalled, until he meets a young woman who threatens to bring everything crashing down around him. Beautifully directed by David Ralphe, the current production of The Night Alive at Santa Paula Theater Center succeeds in mining the riches of McPherson’s play, both the deeply human and the deeper meanings behind the characters’ words and actions.

Tommy (Taylor Kasch) wears the regrets of his life like a wrinkled T-shirt. Estranged from his wife and daughter, he’s living in a shabby one-room apartment in his Uncle Maurice’s (Cecil Sutton) house in Dublin. He’s scraping together a living doing odd jobs with his friend Doc (Ron Feltner), and it’s not much of a life at that. The only evidence of anything exciting happening is in the Steve McQueen posters on the walls. Then, one night, Tommy goes out for a bag of chips and comes home with a young woman (Jessi May Stevenson) whom he saves from an assault. She ends up moving in and suddenly Tommy has something to live for — but Aimee is no innocent. More than just disrupting Tommy’s dull routine, she invites a darkness into their lives. That darkness takes the form of Ken (Brian Harris), Aimee’s boyfriend/pimp/attacker who shows up, full of menace and rage, looking for Aimee. 

Taylor Kasch is wonderful as Tommy, capturing the broken man, infatuated suitor, reluctant hero and idealistic dreamer. Jessi May Stevenson accomplishes the feat of making Aimee lovable and sketchy, tender and tough. Feltner brings out the humor and pathos in Doc, a simple soul who may not say many intelligent things — but when he does, his words are some of the most poetic and telling in the play. Cecil Sutton is the perfect embodiment of a sanctimonious fussbudget who has demons of his own to wrestle. Brian Harris is riveting as Ken, a psychopath who unleashes a terrifying fury that darkens the play and raises the stakes so high that the characters are sent reeling.

The great cast is joined by a talented crew that includes costume designer Barbara Pedziwiatr, prop mistress Gail Heck, lighting designer Gary Richardson, sound engineer David Ralphe, stage manager Karl Krause, with tech support by Doug Learn. Kasch’s design of Tommy’s apartment is authentically detailed, from the unmade bed to the coin-operated radio.

Produced by Leslie Nichols, McPherson’s brilliantly written play is funny, dark, hopeful, thrilling and bittersweet. But are we really seeing what we think we’re seeing? In the words of director David Ralphe, “One never completely grasps the final level of the worlds [Conor McPherson] creates. There is always another level to explore, and you are never finished.” How appropriate, then, that at one point in the play, the characters dance to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” What’s going on? More than you think.  

The Night Alive plays through Oct. 2 at Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula. For tickets and more information, call 525-4645 or visit www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.