Entertainment » Theatre

Shining City

by Joshua Smalley
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Apr 13, 2016
Shining City

The Beck Center continues its successful 2015-2016 theatrical season with its first 2016 regional premiere, "Shining City." Written by the Olivier-winning and Tony-nominated playwright Conor McPherson, this contemporary Irish ghost story is directed by local artist Bernadette Clemens.

"Shining City" opened in the West End in 2004, running from early June to mid-July, and played Broadway in May 2006, closing in July after 80 performances. The Broadway run received two Tony Award nominations, including Best Play.

The play follows four characters: Ian, a starting therapist, John, a widower who has several visits with Ian, Neasa, Ian's girlfriend with whom he has a baby and a crumbling relationship, and Laurence, a homeless male prostitute. The play flows from one two-person scene to the next, with Ian on stage the entire time. Guilt-ridden John reaches out to Ian after claiming to see the ghost of his recently deceased wife, and he fills their three scenes together with vulnerable monologues chronicling a journey of self-discovery. This journey is paralleled by Ian and other characters in the play in nuanced, intricate ways.

McPherson's Irish identity significantly influences his work; his plays usually touch on other-worldy elements despite his almost-naturalistic style. This mixing of realism and the supernatural creates a sense of magic and suspense that weighs upon the narrative, drawing the audience in to this strange, eerily-familiar world. The dialogue meanders from one thought to the next in a contemporary, messy, stuttering style that mimics everyday speech.

The ensemble boldly rises to the challenge of McPherson's writing. Actor Robert Hawkes is empathetic and heartfelt as John, reeling the audience in to his bewildering tale with ease. The crowd was receptive to Hawkes' humor and invested themselves in what he had to say. Adam Heffernan stood out as the play's quirky central character, Ian. Heffernan embodied the character well, giving a clear sense of self through physical and vocal nuances, while at the same time giving enough distance to keep the audience guessing his intentions and backstory.

Both Ursula Cataan and Nicholas Chokan did well as Neasa and Laurence, respectively. Neasa's scene with Ian shifted audience allegiance from one character to the next rapidly as new details about their relationship emerged, and Cataan played this balancing act well. Her emotional journey during the play's second scene is one of the highlights of the show. Laurence's role is difficult and short-lived, but Chokan admirably portrays both his warmth and his distress in a strenuous situation as a father without means.

The scenic design by Aaron Benson is as naturalistic as the dialogue, with the stage built to replicate an intimate office space in downtown Dublin. The Beck Center's smaller studio theatre reinforces a sense of closeness without bordering on claustrophobia. Lighting designer Marcus Dana uses the factory windows near center stage as a focal point, indicating to the audience the time of day. During scene transitions, heavy red hues are used that gives hints of what's to come in the play's final moments.

Clemens' direction is generally strong and grounded, with appropriate moments of humor and fear that land quite well. However, during the intimate conversations between John and Ian, a better placement of Heffernan's quiet reactions would have been beneficial for the stage left audience, who were mostly faced with the back of his head.

McPherson is a strong voice in contemporary drama, and this production at the Beck Center regards his work with respect. The talent, the space, and the direction create a world that is not unlike our own, with characters that have an underlying yearning for connection, both physical and spiritual. This is a piece we can all relate to, even if we may not immediately sense that we can.

"Shining City" runs through May 1 at Beck Center for the Arts' Studio Theater, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, OH. For information or tickets, call 216-521-2540 or visit beckcenter.org.

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