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Chicago by John Olson

Shining City
Redtwist Theatre

Also see John's review of The Trinity River Plays

Shining City
Brian Parry and John Arthur Lewis
Shining City has a rather strong connection to Chicago, as it was first directed on Broadway by the Goodman's Robert Falls, who two years later, in 2008, remounted that production at that Chicago theater. Though I didn't see the play in either of those productions, I suspect it's fair to say that Redtwist has done Chicago theater audiences a service in putting it up on stage again. One reason, certainly, is simply providing a chance to see this much heralded play by the lauded young Irish playwright Conor McPherson. His story of Ian, a former priest turned psychologist, and the first client Ian treats is a haunting study of fear—of change and death in particular (and what could be a greater change than death?).

It requires the audience's patience and attention as McPherson unfolds his story and premise quite slowly and deliberately. John (Brian Parry), a man in his middle fifties, arrives for treatment and explains that he has seen ghostly visions of his wife, who died in a freak auto accident shortly after John cruelly expressed to her his unhappiness in their marriage. In a later scene, through a 20-minute monologue (McPherson is known for his monologues), John describes in excruciating detail the pain he felt in their relationship. He says little about his wife's feelings—it's likely he had no sensitivity to them. He says very little to criticize her at all, so we get the sense she was rather blameless in their relationship, and can imagine just how hurtful he must have been to her. In separate scenes, we learn that Ian has serious issues of his own. He has left his pregnant fiancée to live alone in the home of his brother and sister-in-law. They won't even talk to her, so she's desperately lonely and feeling deserted. Still later, Ian's return to his office with a young rent boy gives some insight into Ian's confusion. The parallel stories of John and Ian run on separate tracks until the very end of the play, when their connection is made clear in its final moments.

Redtwist's non-Equity cast, directed by Joanie Schultz, gives the sort of performances one might expect to find in Chicago only at the large Equity non-profit theaters. Parry has a presence and gravitas that would make him right at home on one of those stages. His John has several faces—the outgoing, friendly demeanor of the salesman he is, admitting the shame of his indiscretions in his marriage, and displaying the guilt he assumes for the events that led to her death. His character seems to do the bulk of the speaking in this play, including that 20-minute monologue, and Parry has more than enough chops to keep us focused on his character. As Ian, John Arthur Lewis has the opposite challenge: he must tell us much about his character in few words and even with restrained body language. True to the standards of his profession, Ian reveals little of himself to his client, and his opacity carries through to his interactions with his fiancée, Neasa, and the young man, Laurence, who visits him. Lewis shows us Ian's anguish even as Ian is trying to hide it from the others. Cheryl Lynn Golemo touchingly communicates Neasa's pain. Kaelan Strouse adeptly balances Laurence's professionalism in trying to be relaxed and friendly with Ian, while revealing the desperate straits of his own circumstances.

The other gift of this production is the opportunity to experience the story in such an intimate, realistic setting that we might feel like a ghost in the room ourselves, observing the characters, yet unseen by them. Redtwist's space is like a shoe box—with the audience at one end and the playing area—of three completely dressed walls (there are no wings) and a ceiling at the other. For Shining City, it's a particularly effective space as it seems believably the same size as the tiny, grim office Ian uses for his practice. In Andrew Jessop's set design, the office is believably plain and low rent. Christopher Burpee's lighting design gives an additional feeling of the various times of day and months of year in which the action occurs, through his clever back lighting of the office's small window. This realism of the setting and performances, together with the physical intimacy of the space (the theater holds fewer than 50 seats, I believe) allows the audience to experience the play in a way that's surely not the same in a large proscenium theater. It's a good reason for any of the play's many admirers to give it another look and for those new to the play to see it here.

Shining City will be performed at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago, through February 27, 2011. For ticket information, visit www.redtwist.org.


Photo: Andrew Jessop

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-- John Olson



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