Catholic guilt is the perfect kindling for drama, and Irish playwright Conor McPherson starts the fire in “Shining City,” a meditation on how people lose their way and must lean on others to heal.
The setting is a nondescript Dublin office of Ian (Christopher Harris), a neophyte therapist who used to be a priest. But exactly who needs a therapist is slowly revealed in his interactions with three people.
Regret fills the space as visitors arrive: John (Jerry Vogel), a distraught businessman wrestling with demons; Neasa (Em Piro), the girlfriend he has pulled away from; and Laurence (Pete Winfrey), a nervous young hustler.
In a virtuoso performance, Vogel plumbs the depths of despair, revealing terrible secrets locked inside. Tortured by the guilt that threatens to consume him after the death of his wife, Vogel is riveting as he expresses pain, anguish, anger and remorse. The quicksilver emotions come tumbling out, a raw and real display by one of our finest actors, as the burden is released.
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That lengthy monologue ends an intense 90-minute first act that leaves one exhausted yet rewarded.
The second act, though shorter, is as subtle and measured as the first, raising the same questions. Yet, its tentative nature hadn’t satisfied my need for definitive answers by the conclusion.
Can faith be restored by others? Can we reconcile the consequences with our actions? Do our ghosts eat us alive, like a parasite, or is there hope for redemption? Will absolution ease our pain?
“Shining City” raises more questions than it answers, as each character divulges his or her needs, rather hesitantly.
The emotionally accessible Piro plays the hurt girlfriend, as Ian has left her, along with their baby, to find his way. She had rescued him and now he has turned away. She lashes out, not understanding why they are in their predicament.
Winfrey, who maintains an impressive Irish accent throughout, is a down-on-his-luck single father making money through sex acts. Lonely married guys by the park are his best customers, he tells Ian in their painfully awkward encounter, which winds up surprisingly tender.
Harris plays the passive Ian thoughtfully, an amenable listener. Ironically, he peers into the abyss, a life in disarray, while trying to provide life rafts to others.
Director Toni Dorfman has four fine, accomplished actors to untangle these characters’ gnawing issues, although some of the hemming and hawing is distracting. The unsure, troubled characters are confused, obviously, but the stammering seems excessive and prolongs an already slow pace.
Personal choices, I understand. With McPherson, as layered a playwright as you find in the modern era, what he conveys by what the fearful characters don’t say is as important as what they do say. And it’s not smooth sailing.
It’s up to us to fill in the blanks on the way home, and while mulling it later. His storytelling mechanics can be frustrating, but more likely than not, you will be haunted by his words and characters.
McPherson is popular in the St. Louis arts community, as “The Weir” is currently being presented by the new group Cocktails and Curtain Calls, and The Midnight Company’s Joe Hanrahan presented his one-act monologues “St. Nicholas” and “The Good Thief” last year.
This ambitious Upstream Theater production of the 2004 award-winning play features live music by Farshid Soltanshahi, always a highlight.
See it for Vogel’s tour de force monologue, and be captivated by the ensemble.
- Who: Upstream Theater
- When: Thursdays through Sundays through Feb. 14
- Where: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand Ave., St. Louis
- Tickets: www.upstreamtheater.org; 314-863-4999