Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011

The Stillness and Silence In Shining City

Soulstice Theatre’s production of Conor McPherson celebrates human limitations

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Conor McPherson’s Shining City is cloaked in a deafening silence. It’s not just the script, which seems peppered with more pauses than a Pinter play . . . it’s the solitude that the drama achieves in a series of dialogues that makes the whole thing feel so breathtakingly still. Soulstice Theatre does a good job of bringing that lonely, static silence to the stage in a production that opens this weekend.

A series of four intimate dialogues between individuals, the script really begs for a studio theatre environment. I was a bit concerned when I found out that the show was being staged in the Marian Center’s cavernous auditorium. Thankfully, they’re treating the theatre’s proscenium stage as a theatre in and of itself, much like they’d done in the past most effectively in productions of Wit and more recently Love Song. Audience members are ushered into the stage theatre in small groups . . . people gradually settle-in to the tiny  Irish therapist’s office where the show is set. Josh Perkins, who plays the therapist in question (a man named Ian) also designed the set—a casually sparse and Spartan affair dominated by a huge, stylishly dark window.

With all four dialogues taking place in the therapist’s office, Josh Perkins is the show’s constant in the role of Ian the therapist. The role requires him to be onstage quite a lot as an audience member himself—a role that goes with the territory of being a therapist. Perkins does an admirable job of sitting with interest without trying to broadcast his presence through long stretches of dialogue from others. When it’s Ian’s turn to take the central focus of the plot, he’s got a solid grasp of the subtleties of a lot soul trying to usher other lost souls through uncertainty. Each of the three others he talks to in the four dialogues are haunted by some sort of ghost. He is a quiet, patient exorcist, letting the ghosts pass as they will. In subtle ways, it’s a very haunting performance that is also very charismatic.

David Ferrie plays a client of Ian’s named John. One gets the feeling that John’s not a particularly articulate man outside the workplace. The recently married gentleman is haunted by the ghost of his late wife—a wife he was evidently never terribly good at communicating with. The role as manifest in the script has got to be a tremendous headache for any actor. I have a suspicion that most of the pauses in the script are his. The actor saddled with the role is required to deliver long monologues punctuated at every turn by human imperfection and somehow still manage to draw an audience-in and hold their attention for the better part of two different scenes. Ferrie has done some really interesting work in studio theatre’s before—one was a particularly challenging one-man performance as Clarence Darrow, but this had to be a much different challenge.

(Ferrie tackles the challenge of drawing-in an audience in this type of role in a way that reminds me a great deal of an interview I’d once had with exiting Milwaukee Rep Artistic Director Joseph Hanreddy  We’d met for the interview at a coffee shop. One-on-one, Hanreddy had kind of a quiet voice that was, nonetheless, very distinct. I was concerned that my recording device wasn’t going to capture a word of what he said, even though I could hear him quite clearly. I had to focus-in on what he was saying—he was a very articulate, but you had to lean-in and focus very intently to hear what him. Sure enough, when I got the device back home, I found that Hanreddy’s voice was as clear as a bell on the recording. He knew exactly the volume he needed to be heard and didn’t beat it by more than the tiniest fraction of a fraction of a micro-decibel.)

It is this Hanreddian mastery over vocal sound silence that Ferrie exhibits in the role of John. He’s drawing-in an audience in an intimate, studio theatre environment by using the precise amount of volume. You can’t help but focus in on everything he’s saying and all the silence he draws around it. The trick to drawing-in an audience to focus on that kind of dialogue lies in what Ferie does with the silence, which Ferrie delicately textures with shades of emotion. John really wants to get the ghosts out of his emotional closet and Ferrie can only convince him to do so in mincing steps that are filled with the kind of empathy that makes him someone an audience would want to listen to. It’s a delicate balance and Ferrie finesses it admirably.

Much of McPherson’s dialogue is rendering the imperfrection of human communication in a remarkable amount of detail. Jillian Smith is called on to play one of the more outwardly articulate characters in the play—Ian’s wife. She’s plagued by ghosts of a more earthly nature than John. There’s an outward strength in Smith’s performance that serves as an important counterpoint to the rest of the characters in the ensemble.

Joran Geiazdowski rounds out the cast as Laurence, a stranger Ian brings into the office. Gwiazdowski handles the mystery of the character with a performance that equal parts crushingly vulnerable and latently aggressive. One gets the impression that this man has been on the streets for years. Gwiazdowski renders a character that seems equally likely to flee or attack Ian. That this is a concern for the audience shows Perkins’ ability to draw empathy from an audience in a rather unique way given his nature as staged therapist/audience member through much of the rest of the play. The interaction between Gwiazdowski and Perkins serves as a well-staged apex to the tension. The finals scene afterwards is one last chance to see Ian and John off into the shadows beyond the theatre. It’s a very delicate drama that is pleasantly provocative.

Soulstice Theatre’s production of Shining City runs through February 26th at the Mrian Center for Non-Profits. For reservations, call 414-431-3187.

 

 

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