Washington PA’s Off the Wall Theatre offers another well-acted, provocative play, Shining City by Ireland’s Conor McPherson. Locally two of his plays were seen here recently, The Seafarer at City Theatre in 2009 and The Dublin Carol produced by PICT in 2008. Similar to both, this largely remains a loquacious character study with thorough insights into conflicted lives. In this case parallels in behavior become revealed, creating a clever intellectual exercise to ponder once you’ve re-inserted yourself in your own city lights. An extraordinary, virtuosic performance by F. J. Hartland carries the day, making constantly interesting and clear page after page of nearly uninterrupted self-revealing monologues. Hartland never overdoes it; the result looks effortless rather than showy, perfectly suiting what McPherson wants to say about ordinary people struggling to make sense of uncertain existence.
Recently widowed John has been haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, Mari, and seeks help from Ian, a former priest turned therapist. Gradually it becomes clear that the relationship between John and Mari was increasingly strained, mostly due to John. It also turns out that Ian has serious problems in his relationship with his fiancée Neasa, where he seems most to blame. Both men search ways to be more complete than they are while McPherson’s fine perceptions show how realities keep teaching them lessons they hadn’t imagined. By contrast, a less ordinary man, streetwalker Laurence, has come to terms with who he is, another good McPherson conception.
I see potential for seriously touching moments, but the convincing portraits by Hartland and Dennis Schebetta as Ian stay inside the frame rather than grabbing you by the hand where you can feel the warmth, the sweaty palms. For me the only emotionally moving point comes when John describes getting violently angry with innocent Mari, making her a helpless victim. Odd, isn’t it? that an off-stage person could become more sympathetic than anyone onstage. Yet Hartland thoroughly conveyed that sorrowful moment even though not ever generating much sympathy for John.
He gets most of McPherson’s well-known penchant for Pinter-like fractured dialogue in rambling, always original, unpredictable stories. Alas there is constant repetition of “you know?” There may be some kind of point in having that phrase repeated so maddening excessively, but I can’t help wondering if Hartland was throwing in extra helpings. Too bad director John Shepard didn’t trim that somehow.
Shepard has kept the pacing genuine, never pushing too hard, making everything realistic, adding a few subtle touches in staging. Something else, though, puzzles me, a studied emphasis on Ian increasingly adding home-like touches to his office, bringing new pictures, lamps, flowers, plus pillows and a blanket which, oddly, never get used and just sit there on the floor. This seems rather close to Ionesco’s The New Tenant, perhaps with a similar point. I’m sure there’s a point in there somewhere.
As for the title, although the play is set in Dublin, nothing in the text talks about the city and, since it is outside the confines of these walls, the neither dark nor bright interior could be any place, making the events universal, rather than specific. So what does the title mean? Another puzzle.
Here we have thought over feeling in a well-done production which gives lots of interesting things to consider, including a surprise ending.
Shining City remains through May 21st at Off The Wall Theater, 147 N. Main Street Washington, PA. 724/ 873-3576 or www.insideoffthewall.com