Beck Center for the Arts’ yarn, ‘Shining City,’ inspires a yawn
By Bob Abelman
Irish playwright Conor McPherson is a master storyteller whose tall tales, often told in short form, overflow with brilliant passages and vivid imagery that are both powerful and poetic.
Each of his plays — of which there are 15 — take place over a short period of time, which generates a strong sense of immediacy and urgency. The person telling the story does so with extended monologues that tend to be more confessional than theatrical. And there is always a quirky, other-worldly element that bites at the heels of the play’s otherwise stark and quite dramatic realism.
“Shining City,” first produced in 2004 and on stage at the Beck Center for the Arts’ intimate Studio Theater, is all of these things. And it is very much a ghost story.
This tale is mostly told by a middle-aged businessman and recent widower named John (Robert Hawkes) during his therapy sessions with Ian (Adam Heffernan). He is the first patient of Ian’s, who has recently left the priesthood and hung his shingle in a rundown office building in downtown Dublin (nicely rendered by designer Aaron Benson). John keeps seeing his wife, Mari, who died in a car crash and whose vision so frightens him that he has traded their haunted house for residence in a local B&B.
John’s uncomfortable, ineffective and disconnected encounters with the dead aren’t all that different from Ian’s conversation with his estranged girlfriend, Neasa (Ursula Cataan), who is raising their baby alone and in unfriendly surroundings. Or the conversation Ian has with Laurence (Nicholas Chokan), a down-on-his-luck acquaintance whom he seeks out for comfort.
Everyone in “Shining City” is living in a state of discomfort and is lost in his or her haunted loneliness. And that is pretty much the point of McPherson’s one-act character study masquerading as a 100-minute play.
As if to emphasize their loneliness and discomfort, none of the characters in this play have a home to call their own, all of them have sought out sexual encounters that are as unsavory as they are unsatisfying, and no more than two of them are on stage at any given time.
And everyone in this play is an inept and ineffective communicator, speaking in fragmented, frequently interrupted half-thoughts laced with Harold Pinter pauses and David Mamet-like pacing and abundance of profanity that loses its meaning and menace because of its frequency.
Like actors in a Mamet or Pinter play, those in this one require a special set of skills to properly execute what playwright McPherson has rendered.
Hawkes is called on to do most of the heavy lifting. And while his character’s drollness and the immense weight of his sorrow come through nicely, his stuttering delivery during his sustained monologues grows increasingly tedious. Worse, it keeps much of the tension and subtlety in the script at bay by sputtering past those necessary pauses. This makes it difficult for audiences to see themselves in John’s awkwardness and inadequacies.
Hawkes is not done any favors by director Bernadette Clemens, who keeps Ian on the periphery — pinned behind his desk or at a significant distance from John — when all eyes are on Hawkes. Neither the actor nor the audience can benefit from Ian’s reactions.
Heffernan does a masterful job of playing the anguished, mortally and morally wounded Ian and executing the playwright’s complicated writing. And Cataan, despite her relatively brief time onstage, is just as effective. Neasa’s pain is palpable and the dialogue she is given in her irritatingly disconnected exchange with Ian comes across as so very real.
This is not the case with Chokan, who does not really bring much to Laurence’s short and admittedly difficult scene with Ian.
Also disappointing is the execution of some of the small production elements on opening Saturday night. A missed lighting cue and a quirky play-ending special effect wouldn’t normally mean much in the course of a play. But they weigh particularly heavy in a play like this, where everything — such as a faulty busser that admits patients to Ian’s office — has significance.
In “Shining City,” and all of McPherson’s plays, the devil is very much in the details. CV
WHAT: “Shining City”
WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood
WHEN: Through May 1
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31, call 216-521-2540 or visit beckcenter.org
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 3, 2016.
Lead image: Robert Hawkes, left, as John and Adam Heffernan as Ian. PHOTO | Kathy Sandham