Sunday, April 03, 2016

Well written SHINING CITY on stage @ Beck Center

SHINING CITY, Conor McPherson’s script now on stage at Beck Center, is a play about people who are in a search for “self.”  Each of the four characters has an unclear image of who they are, and are in a quest for clarity, love, and the need to emotionally and physically touch someone.

The play, which is performed without intermission, takes place in five scenes, each set about two months apart.  Each scene leaves a series of questions in the minds of the audience as to their intent and foreshadows later actions in the play.

The setting is an office in present day Dublin.  Ian (Adam Heffernan), who has left the priesthood, has established himself as a counselor.  His practice is housed in a sparsely furnished office.  His first client is John (Robert Hawkes), a middle-aged man who tells a tale of being haunted by the ghost of Mari, his dead wife, who was killed in an auto accident.  Afraid to be in his large house, with a ghost present, he has moved into a B&B.  Is the ghost real?  Is it a figment of John’s imagination?  Or is it a psychological manifestation striving to get out of the unconscious and into the man’s consciousness?     

Scene two reveals that Ian has an estranged fiancée, Neasa (Ursula Cataan), who is the mother of his child. Why has Ian left this women and the youngster?  Will Ian relent and come “home?”  Will Neasa’s confession of having a one-night stand seal the doom for this relationship?

Scene three finds John back for a repeat session.  He reveals that his marriage was not without conflict.  The couple had no children, felt isolated at social events when others spoke of their off-spring.  He tells of a failed attempt at an extra-marital affair and an unfulfilled visit to a prostitute.  Will John’s probing into his troubled marriage help him to gain an understanding of why his wife has “reappeared” as a ghost?  Will his recounting of his failed sexual liaisons clarify why he felt isolated in his marriage?  Will Ian help John to gain the clarity needed to move on with his life?

Scene four finds Ian bringing home Laurence (Nicholas Chokan), a male prostitute.  Ian admits that he has never sexual been with a man.  Why did Ian bring Laurence home? Does Ian bringing Laurence home explain his alienation from Neasa?  Will Ian and Laurence have sex, develop a relationship and move forward from there?

In the last scene, as Ian is packing up his office, John appears bearing a “thank you” gift.   John reveals that he is now dating a woman he likes, is no longer seeing his former wife’s ghost, is selling his large house and moving to an apartment, that he now realizes that the ghost was a manifestation of his need to punish himself for the intended affairs and his thoughts that he was responsible for his wife’s death.  Ian reveals that he, Neasa and the baby are being reunited.  As John leaves, Ian is left alone in the office, with the image of Mari lingering in his doorway. 

Why has Ian changed his mind about his relationship with Neasa?  What is the significance of Mari’s ghost?  What is the moral, lesson, and/or concept that McPherson is trying to share with the audience?

The reviews of SHINING CITY, both in its 2004 London production and its 2006 Broadway premiere, were generally exemplary.   In New York, the play received two Tony nominations, including being selected for consideration as Best Play. 

A critical comment about the script included that it was a “ haunting and glorious new play.”  Others called it “a marvel and delight” and “absorbing and witty,” and noted that “McPherson fuses extra-ordinary skill at shaping language with an aching awareness of difficulties of communicating.”

The comments about the productions, themselves, referred to the “flawless timing,” the “effective pace,” “the wit,” and that “time flies while the actors rivet your attention as this gripping story unfolds.”

The Beck production, under the direction of Bernadette Clemens, has some excellent performances, but lacks some of the “flawless timing” “effective pacing”  and “wit” that the reviewers of the other productions commented upon. 

Hawkes gives a splendid, textured realism to the conflicted John.  His guilt over the failed marriage, and his role in that failure, were crystal clear.  Verbally stumbling, gulping water, pacing with tension…Hawkes clearly creates a man in torment.  His relaxed mannerisms in the last scene showed the effect of his coming to terms with his issues and the character’s ability to move on.

Cataan was properly wrought as the confused Neasa.  Sometimes speaking at a lightning rate, she blurted out her tale of frustration, clearly conveying her confusion.  Her emotional cracking, while revealing her affair, is riveting.

Some of the stage movement, actor placement and lack of interactive tension was frustrating as was evidenced by the audience’s on and off attention and the polite applause at the curtain call.

One of the factors that all of us who are mental health professionals are taught, is that for effective counseling to take place there must be a connectedness between client and patient.  Though the world of the stage takes some liberties because of “theatrical” needs, Ian’s sitting behind the desk during most of his first session with John created an emotional void.  The same occurred in the third scene when Ian sat across the room in a chair with a vast chasm between the two.  Even theatrically this was problematic.  The placement of the chair cheated the audience seated stage left, from having a vision of Ian’s face and made seeing John almost impossible.  The staging techniques could well have accounted for the lack of a feeling of a link between Ian and John.

At the end of the fourth scene, there was no connection between Ian and Laurence.  Why had Ian brought Laurence home?  Was he interested in probing his possible latent homosexuality?  If so, there should have been some sexual tension developed between the two.  If Ian discovered that he had made a mistake there needed to be some act of rejection.  As is, the scene didn’t help clarify Ian’s actions in the last act.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  SHINING CITY is a well-written script which tells a compelling set of stories.  Past productions of the play were praised for their emotional development and wit.  Though the Beck production had some excellent performances, the pace, staging and some shallow character connections, left some of the over-all effect missing.  Hopefully, as the show runs, the performers will add some of the missing or muted elements.

SHINING CITY is scheduled to run through May 1, 2016 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to

Next at Beck:  HEATHERS:  THE MUSICAL in its regional premiere.  It’s a heartfelt, homicidal, tune-filled reliving of the 1989 film of the same name.  (May 27-July 2, 2016)