Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of Underneath The Lintel
So why all the deep, rattling earthquakes in their lives?
The conventional wisdom is that, before the all the rights movements of the last 60 years, it was purely a man's world (a straight, white man's world, to be more specific). But here, at last, they're being liberated toothough from what, and into what, is the invisible riddle at the heart of the play.
Toni Dorfman directs, getting well-defined performances from three outstanding actors: Jerry Vogel, Christopher Harris, and Pete Winfrey. Mr. Vogel rifles through rages and exasperation and regrets (here as a 54-year old man, recently widowed), showing the kind of psychological dexterity that you might compare to a master croupier's fast-moving fingertips in a big casino. In the talk therapy scenes with Mr. Harris, his emotions go flashing by in a rush, bright and distinct, but so quickly that you couldn't possibly count the cards.
Of course, the mood is anything but Vegas: it's wintry Dublin, and the beautifully muted color scheme allows a lot more focus on the characters, as they thrash their way toward a new consciousness of lost men. Playwright McPherson's men and women, who seem quite stable, can change to something entirely different an instant later. Relationships that seemed fairly solid turn to crap in the wink of an eye. And everything keeps swirling like quicksand in their lives.
It might be because they're always reaching out to grab one impossible form of relief after another, in an age of personal and professional dislocation where the merest feeling of discontent is the get-out-of-jail card from any sort of relationship. Now, looking at all these men have left behind in such a hurry, it seems desire itself has robbed them of everything worth having.
It is, in fact, the hell of freedom. And along with the constant, destabilizing spur of desire, everyone in Shining City is also well trained at feeling guilty. It's just a guess, but maybe that guilt is a side effect of the narcissism that comes with first-world consumerism, and the advertising drumbeat that says we all deserve "something better." ("No we don't," the characters often seem to lament, here.)
Christopher Harris (as the therapist) does well in a mostly listening part, quite a departure from his leading roles in the shocking Helver's Night and Diary of a Madman (also for Upstream Theatre). As Ian, he's left the clergy for a job in counseling, giving up the status and trappings of the church for all the headaches of the modern world. His continuing search for independence is marred by uneasy intervals in limbo.
Among the most startling sections of the play is a "relationship scene" between Ian and Neasa (the exceptionally talented Em Piro). If I told you that blame shifted back and forth between them like a shuttlecock, you'd just nod and move onbut in this case, the blame is eagerly taken up like a martyrdom, first by one and then the other. And each of their betrayals are so surprising we cannot turn away.
Another amazing actor, Pete Winfrey, brings in the final haunting representation of modern men. As Laurence, it seems his self-determination has been blocked at every turn. But the grimmest realities he carries on stage are beautifully balanced by kindness and yearning.
Thanks to director Dorfman, it's in those moments, between breakdowns and disappointments and reshufflings, that goodness and kindness emerge in spite of everything. What's best about all men saves them from the worst.
From 2004, Shining City continues through February 14, 2016: a surprisingly great play that never shortchanges its audience. For more information visit www.upstreamtheater.org
Music: Farshid Soltanshahi
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association
** Denotes Candidate for Equity Membership
*** Denotes Member, Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers
**** Denotes Member, United Scenic Artists Local 829, for professional theatrical designers and scenic artists in the US