Beowulf Alley's 'Shining City' is a flawed but compelling play

Missed Connections 

Beowulf Alley's 'Shining City' is a flawed but compelling play

Theater folk in Tucson can be fearless, which often results in exciting—though far from perfect—productions. Such is Shining City, Conor McPherson's enigmatic but compelling play which opened last weekend to kick off the Beowulf Alley Theatre Company's sixth season.

McPherson's play, and Beowulf Alley's production, offers not so much a story as an experience. It most definitely has a post-Pinter sensibility: It sometimes feels awkward and aggravating; it grinds and sputters. It drones with an intentionally constant tempo, plodding relentlessly while offering moments of uncertain—and uncomfortable—respite, which manifest as long, seemingly senseless spaces between scenes. It intrigues, but it's often unclear where the play is leading us.

Really, it's a lot like life.

McPherson—an Irish playwright, screenwriter and director—has garnered acclaim for a growing body of work that includes The Weir, which won the Laurence Olivier Award for its Royal Court run in 1999. Shining City debuted at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2004 and was mounted on Broadway in 2006. It was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play.

Central to the Shining City experience are John (David Greenwood) and Ian (Jared Stokes), two far from extraordinary people. John relates his story in what is essentially a monologue directed at Ian, his therapist. We witness a bit more of Ian's experience, as he actually interacts with a couple of folks from his life outside of his therapist role.

John has sought out Ian's help, because he is experiencing unusual events after the death of his wife in a car accident. He proclaims to Ian that he has actually seen her in their home several times since her death, and although he knows this is totally irrational, he believes that his experience is absolutely real. He can no longer stay in his home and has taken up residency in a bed and breakfast. As his sessions (and his monologues) wear on, we realize that guilt may be contributing to his discomfort, because—lacking a real and nurturing connection with his wife—he had sought, artlessly and unsuccessfully, a connection with a woman outside of his marriage.

Greenwood gives a solid performance. He is earnest and sad, and his struggles seem enough like ours to allow us both to embrace him and want to keep him at a distance. McPherson's dialogue requires a grasping and sputtering delivery, and almost every sentence ends up with the refrain, "You know?" It is far from eloquent, and a bit maddening, yet Greenwood's commitment to this character makes it work.

Less successful is Stokes' Ian. Ian confirms what we have long-expected: that therapists are some of the most screwed-up people out there. In one scene, we see Ian, an ex-priest, breaking up—rather brutishly for someone who seems so mild-mannered—with his girlfriend with whom he has a child. In another, he brings home a young male prostitute for experimental homosexual coupling. In fact, his real-life actions between his sessions with John almost echo John's experiences as he has related them to Ian. Because Ian is the only character we see relating to others, his character should be the spine which supports the piece. But Stokes, who is not a seasoned performer, lacks the genuine subtext and nuance—the depth of character—to make his Ian really effective. He is not always able to allow the often subtle complexities of the play to filter through his character and reach us.

Director Susan Arnold has committed courageously to a specific vision for McPherson's play, and she has largely succeeded in getting her cast and crew to commit to that vision. Since the setting is Dublin, the actors attempt to create credible accents, but they are far from uniformly successful. Even when they do succeed, they sound so unfamiliar to our American ears that we sometimes don't understand what they're saying, which is a bit off-putting. But ultimately, we understand enough.

Music and sound have been carefully chosen by Arnold and David Krasner to add a deeper dimension of mystery to this already mysterious piece. Bill Galbreath and Kate Natale have created a very well-crafted set, complete with some skilled scenic painting by Galbreath. With moving boxes stacked around a shabbily furnished room where the plaster has crumbled to reveal its brick construction, Ian's office, which doubles as his home, suggests a state of transition, a sense of being neither here nor there.

This is not a play that everyone will embrace. There's no warm and fuzzy sentiment or even a gloriously satisfying cathartic moment, although the surprising ending certainly gives us a good shake and suggests that we might connect with each other in unexpected ways—through the haunting ghosts we share.

Arnold and crew have taken a courageous stab at a difficult but intriguing piece. It's a real challenge to entice an audience to connect with a play that painfully demonstrates how difficult it is for us to connect. There are moments that engage and attract, and others that exasperate and repulse. Yet, for all its oddities and irritations, Shining City is curiously affecting.

Sort of like life.

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