January 25, 2008

Luck of the Irish shines through in play’s best moments

For a city with such a strong Irish heritage and thriving theater scene, Chicago has had a frustrating relationship with contemporary Irish playwrights. While the works of Conor MacPherson and Martin McDonagh have taken the New York and London stages by storm for a over a decade now, Chicago has had to deal with disappointing productions like last year’s Steppenwolf version of The Pillowman. Most recognition of the Irish Invasion has been buried in sporadic off-Loop productions (though some, such as Uma Production’s recent version of Faith Healer, have been outstanding). Since the Goodman’s artistic director directed the well received Broadway production of MacPherson’s Shining City, the stage seemed to be set for the Goodman’s own production of the play to finally give Chicago a proper treatment of contemporary Irish drama. While the production is not as strong as it could have been, for the most part the Goodman does justice to MacPherson’s work. Chicagoans who have wanted a taste of what makes the contemporary Irish dramatists so great will be thoroughly pleased by the production.

MacPherson will forever be lumped with McDonagh (whose first feature film, In Bruges, comes out next month), as they represent a generation of Irish dramatists raised as much on American culture as on their native tradition of poetry. MacPherson has been quick to credit David Mamet as his primary inspiration. At the same time, Shining City, like most of MacPherson’s other plays, has an element of the supernatural, as the age-old theater tradition of the ghost story is merged with distinctly modern traditions of psychotherapy and consumer culture. The play centers on Ian (Jay Whittaker), a former priest who has become a second-rate shrink and a terrible fiancé, as he struggles to deal with his personal life and the problems of his patient John (John Judd), an insomniac salesman haunted by the ghost of his ex-wife.

Other than the cast, the production has stayed nearly identical to its Broadway incarnation. Yet the cast is precisely where the shortcomings of the Goodman’s production arise. Most notably, all four of the Chicago-based actors had serious problems mastering the Irish accent, to the extent that it became a major distraction at points. The acting in general was often inconsistent, as Whittaker initially struggled to feel at ease in his role. To be fair, the character Ian is not comfortable with himself to begin with, and Whittaker makes a fine recovery from a flat opening scene with his excellent performance in a painfully awkward encounter with a male prostitute (played convincingly by Keith Gallagher). The same cannot be said for Nicole Wiesner as Ian’s fiancée Neasa, who gives an exceedingly wooden performance in her only real scene, a breakup with Ian that is already the weakest and most melodramatic point in the play. It’s hard to compete with the likes of Brian F. O’Byrne and Martha Plimpton, who starred in the play on Broadway, but the gap in talent is difficult to ignore.

Yet the standout performance of the show, without a doubt, is Judd as the endearing patient John. Ironically, Judd was the weakest link in the cast of the 2005 Steppenwolf hit Orson’s Shadow. But here he absolutely steals every scene he’s in and single-handedly saves the play from its fading early energy with his extended monologue about a failed affair and its irrevocable consequences on his marriage. While Robert Falls deserves much credit for his direction, a much more optimistic take than even MacPherson had thought possible, Judd’s contributions stand out above the rest, and he should definitely expect some award considerations to be thrown his way.

While MacPherson and McDonagh are constantly referred to as a pair, they have drastically different styles. MacPherson is much more of a humanist than McDonagh, and for those warded off by the gruesome nature of The Pillowman, Shining City is as uplifting as the usually morose Irish drama gets. It’s the noteworthy compassion of MacPherson, in addition to his continued creativity (McDonagh famously wrote all his plays in one creative outburst in 1994), that usually elevates MacPherson ahead of McDonagh in references to the greatest living Irish playwright, even though McDonagh’s body of work is probably greater than MacPherson’s. Shining City, despite its intermittent bleakness and trick ending, is sure to be a constant crowd pleaser and win over packed audiences nightly. It’s about time Chicago was able to give the likes of MacPherson that kind of treatment.