Shining City, by Conor McPherson. Directed by Christopher Innvar; Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...thinking that was the end of the journey for me."
Mark H. Dold as Ian; photo: David Fertik
No one wrote better five-act plays than William Shakespeare. Conor McPherson is doing just as well with his five-scene play, "Shining City" now on stage at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center in Pittsfield, Massachsetts. In an hour and thirty-five minutes he explores the interior of his character Ian, a therapist, a former Roman Catholic priest, through the unusual methodology of exposing the interiors of those closest to Ian, a patient, a former girlfriend and a rent-boy or hustler. Director Christopher Innvar has chosen Mark H. Dold to play Ian, a brilliant move in casting, and has carefully utilized a stage setting to open up Ian to the world he now inhabits.
Whether it is a man on the verge of guilt-laden madness, a young father desperate for cash or an over-wrought young woman whose motive is love and whose method is maudlin, Innvar and his actors shape their characters around the neediest man created by this playwright since the theater critic in his play "St. Nicholas." Ian is a person who cannot let go of his former self. As a priest he heard confession and as a therapist he continues this training tradition in the best way he knows how: he prompts and he listens and he holds onto his pad and pen for appearances sake - he rarely ever uses them. They are his props in his new life much as his cross and his robe would have been in his earlier career.
He has moved away from his former calling for reasons that are never made clear. It wasn't for the love of a good woman, for Neasa, played with almost outrageous anger by a very talented Deanna Gibson, is not a love object who could inspire the rejection of a religious life. She, rather, is a crutch for Ian, someone to depend upon him and to support him. In many ways she is the church providing him with a home and ability to study for his new life without making many demands on him. He can depend upon her loyalty, although it has been tested, for she sincerely cares for him in spite of a coldness that cannot be easily understood in her situation.
Similarly he depends upon a hustler, his first "gay" encounter which is difficult and awkward and wonderfully played by Patrick Ball whose Laurence is as needy as Ian in many of the same ways. Both are fathers without their children available to them. Both are men for whom violence is a necessary evil - Laurence in a physical way and Ian in an emotional sense. Their coming together to explore possibilities is almost a comic relief episode, except for one thing: Innvar keeps them as uncomfortable as possible, physically, and so they respond to one another uncomfortably in every way.
Most critically needy and most often a scene partner with Dold's Ian is John, played by the incredible Wilbur Edwin Henry. John is a haunted straight man whose dead wife is a seemingly unalterable obsession. Her death has shattered his self-confidence and even his attempts to move on, before and after her death, have left him weak, vulnerable and close to dementia. Henry has a difficult job with this role, making John sympathetic but not moreso than Ian. McPherson's script makes that difficult, but again Innvar intercedes on the main character's behalf always keeping Dold in good light and clear focus. His responses to John's statements bring our attention squarely into Ian's camp. At one point he stands awkwardly over John holding a box of tissues. He cannot put it down and he cannot offer it and so Ian's imbalance in a situation takes center stage in a scene about John's despair.
At the end of the play I was amused by McPherson's use of the number five. Like Shakespeare's construction of his plays this show moves through ten months in five very different scenes. At the end Ian is moving to the town of Limerick which gave its name to a poetry form consisting of five lines and usually ending with a small joke, often of a sexual nature. For Ian the move is a peculiar one considering what has already played out in his secular life. McPherson caps this decision with a visually startling revelation which Innvar has used remarkably well. Our last sighting of Dold's Ian leaves us wondering what has happened to the former priest: has he altered his beliefs?; will he change his mind about his future?; has he developed a dementia all his own?; or, perhaps, have other people's mindsets transferred themselves to Ian without his wanting or wishing for them? We know he is a needy man, but is he this needy? We'll never know. We can only suppose.
Brian Prather's set, so reminiscent of his former set for Butler (the play that opened the BSC season on this stage) is wonderful as it shows us the rooftops of Dublin in all kinds of weather and time settings. Scott Pinkney's lighting is effective and useful in setting and maintaining mood. Kristina Sneshkoff's costume designs are exact and perfect in capturing the characteristics of each character. Brad Berridge has provided sound for the play that keeps us mindful of Ireland and the times. Wendy Waterman, dialect coach, has given almost too much accuracy to the Irish brogues of each character. It is sometimes difficult to understand them and in the case of this play it would have been helpful to have a list of unusual words and their meanings as part of the program.
Altogether this is as close to perfection as you get in the theater. A very good play with extremely good actors under the exacting direction of a very talented man of the stage. If I hadn't seen this with my own eyes I probably wouldn't have believed that anything this good could have followed on the heels of the previous excellent show in this space. Surprise! It's that good.
Deanna Gibson as Neasa; photo: David Fertik
Patrick Ball as Laurence; photo: David Fertik
Mark H. Dold as Ian and Wilbur Edwin Henry as John; photo: David Fertik
Shining City plays through July 11 on the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, the second stage of Barrington Stage Company, located at 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA. For information and tickets contact the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.