Irish Theatre of Chicago at the Den Theatre. By Conor McPherson. Directed by Jeff Christian. With Brad Armacost, Coburn Goss, Shane Kenyon, Carolyn Kruse. Running time: 1hr 45mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Dan Jakes
One of the more interesting and telling sources of inspiration playwright Conor McPherson credits for his work is Newgrange, a prehistoric burial monument in his native Ireland. As he explained to Australian Stage, during a short window, the sun rises at a precise angle and illuminates the interior chamber with sunlight. Each winter solstice, a select few lottery winners experience an awe-inspiring beam break through, allegorically enough, the darkest night of the year.
It's a visualization of the unlikely and mysterious sense of salvation that's a hallmark of McPherson's brilliant and often harrowing stories. Those include The Seafarer, recently produced by Irish Theatre of Chicago, and especially Shining City, now in production at the Den Theatre.
Both dramas have a foot in the supernatural, but where The Seafarer's characters wrestle with their spiritual anguish in a literal sense, Shining City's are deprived of any similar certainty. John, a middle-aged widower (Brad Armacost in a searing performance that carries the show), is referred to a therapist, Ian (Coburn Goss), by a doctor after confessing experiencing hallucinations of his dead wife. Downtrodden by guilt over their drifting marriage—they weren't even speaking at the time of her death—John looks for answers in Ian, whose spiritual, romantic and career lives have been equally uprooted.
There's plenty of aching, but McPherson's aim goes further than just showing despondency and isolation as parts of the inevitable. For all its bleakness, McPherson and Jeff Christian's production are more concerned with the personal realizations and truths that can only be discovered after everything is lost. That's exemplified in a strong scene between Goss and Shane Kenyon as Laurence, a father who makes an unlikely professional arrangement. That too goes for Carolyn Kruse as Neasa, Ian's estranged wife, with whom it's impossible not to empathize.
Ensemble-wide, the performances are patient, raw and rewarding. In McPherson's universe, redemption isn't out of reach—he'll just make you work for it.