Review #1 of 2: Shining City by Different Stages
by David Glen Robinson
Was Conor McPherson going through a divorce or coming out about the time he wrote Shining City? In its stories and action, the play repeatedly throws relationships that don’t work at the theatregoer, and McPherson delights in detailing how men fumble ham-handedly with women in every situation. This is the lit-crit expectation of the nihilistic McPherson, but if anyone in everyday life is going through anything similar, don’t expect Shining City to offer any strategies that might succeed. The play’s Tony Award nomination in 2006 was Broadway schadenfreude.
Different Stages gives the one-set, four-character Shining City a fulsome production at the tony, well-designed Trinity Street Playhouse in downtown Austin. The company lives up to and enhances its reputation for quality stage productions. Theirs is a model for independent theatre companies (Zach Theatre, despair!). Producing artistic director Norman Blumensaadt directs.
The play takes place in the present day, in the office of Ian (played by Sam Grimes), a licensed counselor qualified to discuss problems presented by paying clients. One of them, John (Rick Felkins), tells Ian that he has seen an apparition of his deceased wife more than once, and it is so disturbing that he won’t stay in his house or enter it for more than a few minutes at a time. In the scene that follows, therapist Ian meets with his wife Neasa (Adrienne Gilg), and Ian manages to convince her that they cannot go on together. Early in this longish play, the action and dialog seem to be telegraphing that the therapy and healing, if any, are going to redirect toward therapist Ian and away from clients and family, a reversal in theme and plot. The intrigue is in seeing how that may play out in events and the stories of the characters around Ian. Ian is notably nervous, anxiety-ridden, and unhappy, jumping in surprise when stories and accounts approach his anxieties too closely. Many people like him take refuge in marriage and family, and he has, but he punts it all on third down. He’s a therapist in need of therapy. Unlike Rick Felkins’ John, Ian doesn’t know how to cry for help,.
Shining City is a “therapy play,” so certain faux pas show a lack of understanding of the practice of therapy. The therapist commits a no-no when he approaches a distraught client and asks, “Are you OK?” Not done! That gaffe is either a mark of Ian’s therapeutic ineptitude or a gap in McPherson’s understanding and scriptwriting. The line passes too quickly to be sure, but it would certainly fit Ian’s low skill profile.
The grit and grime of Conor McPherson’s plays attract a hefty segment of theatre patrons. Others think that he’s no Charles Dickens and certainly no James Joyce, Dublin’s ultimate literary habitué. McPherson’s Dublin is evoked only by the characters’ use of city place names and mentions of modern establishments, none of them shining. And, of course, by the Irish dialect. Otherwise, the therapist’s office could be anywhere, if it weren’t for the window image of a Dublin cathedral outside, perhaps across the street. Elaine Jacobs takes the credit for set design.
The slow pace and the low emotional tone in the first half impede the progress of the play. Not all conversations in a therapist’s office are of interest, and those in Ian’s workplace did not rise above emotional level 3 (out of 10) until John’s peroration during his second appointment. That was the excitement for the first half. Nevertheless, Felkins’ and Grimes’ efforts were skilled and matched evenly. Grimes conscientiously balanced his greater talents to those of other actors, but the effect was to slow the pace. One maddening quirk was that all the actors dropped the sound level in emphatic phrases at the end of a sentence.
The Irish accents were solidly held and melodious, except for some forgivable minor lapses in moments of high emotion. No dialog coach was credited. Another issue of note: the characters used the f-word repeatedly in their dialogs and speeches, that twenty-first-century signature naughty term of emphasis (and for the twentieth). All English speakers have an ear for it. Irish-accented characters enacted by American actors all used the American pronunciation of the word, not the Irish, which is distinctly different. No need to elaborate—but the frequent mispronunciation became glaring in the abundance of its spew.
The second half of the play offers more than a couple of surprises, but after a first half in which the characters established themselves and the arc with long, long speeches, all those surprises seemed gratuitous. They failed to enliven the energy level of the production. Ian did indeed receive therapy, offered at no financial cost to him unknowingly by the other characters, but he remained the same failed, twitchy therapist who began the play. Felkins’ John moved toward a new and potentially happier life which we were not allowed to see. Ian’s wife Neasa doesn’t fare well at all in her single scene, and we don’t see her again until the curtain call. That is extremely out of sync in a four-character play. (Third generation woke anti-hegemonists take note.) Worthy Weston Smith’s character of Laurence populated a single scene of Ian’s loneliness and desperation, for Laurence clearly a story complete in itself, though just another gyre in Ian’s downward spiral. Ian’s supposed resolution, a gratuitous off-stage, two-sentence story, is more an escape hatch written into the script so McPherson the playwright can get done with his own play after enjoying his scribble therapy.
Conor McPherson’s play are too great a stretch for many adults in the theatre community. For those who enjoy his work and are immune to (or embrace) scatology, Billingsgate, misogyny, and excessive foul language poorly performed, here is Shining City, produced by Different Stages.
The play runs until October 9, 2022, at Trinity Street Playhouse, downtown Austin.
[black-and-white photo by Steve Rogers Photography]
September 23 - October 09, 2022
Black Box Theatre, 4th floor, First Baptist Church
901 Trinity Street
Austin, TX, 78701
Sept 23 - Oct 9, 2022
Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are: $15, $25, $35.
Trinity Street Players, 4th floor, First Baptist Church, 701 Trinity Street, Austin
For tickets go to www.differentstagestheatre.org
For Information call 512-926-6747