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Theater review: Shining City

Story doesn't shine in this haunted 'City'
by: ©2008 OWEN CAREY, Ian (Michael O’Connell, left) has a big job to do in Third Rail Repertory’s “Shining City”: listening to John (Bruce Burkhartsmeier).

A big part of what makes Third Rail Repertory Theatre such an intriguing artistic collective is its willingness - no, insistence - on producing challenging works of theater.

In just about every play Third Rail has done since its 2005 debut, relationships are in tenuous shape, someone dies or somebody - if not everybody - is in imminent danger.

In Conor McPherson's 'Shining City,' which opened last weekend, one person already is dead and the relationships we see are either over or on their way south.

John (Bruce Burkhartsmeier), a rather nondescript, middle-age fellow whose wife has died tragically, seeks help from Ian (Michael O'Connell), a cleric turned counselor with issues of his own.

John is a mess, deranged by guilt and literally haunted by the woman whose death he may have brought about with his faithlessness and callous behavior.

Though Ian spends much of the play as an inert sounding board to John's confessions, we do glimpse his own failure to find a human connection.

With scant explanation, Ian tells his pregnant barmaid girlfriend (Val Landrum) he cannot stay in her life. We later gain insight, ostensibly, when we see him cavorting with a street kid prostitute (Chris Harder).

In time, it's evident that John is doing most of the haunting here. His painstakingly told stories of selfishness and cruelty to his late wife prompt Ian to re-evaluate his own life.

Burkhartsmeier is delightfully good as John, and thankfully so; his character relegates the other three actors to the sidelines. At one point, an extended monologue nearly turns the play into a one-man show, with O'Connell onstage as little more than a prop.

Disappointingly, it also becomes clear that the story underlying all the spooky stuff is rather slight.

McPherson, best known for his 1999 drama 'The Weir,' seems to be telling us little more than this: Relationships tend to be undermined by self-directed behavior and difficulty communicating. The playwright reinforces the latter with a lot of incomplete sentences and uncomfortable exchanges.

Perhaps more crucially, neither of the main characters in McPherson's play is in any particular danger.

Even as John and Ian come to degrees of healing and new resolve, something Burkhartsmeier conveys especially well, the two come off as somewhat selfish men with little to offer others, and we're not deeply invested in either.

For kicks, McPherson flashes a delicious, Shyamalan-esque moment just before the final curtain, but the brief thrill of it only stands in contrast to the rather slow-moving ectoplasm that's drifted around us for the previous two hours.

- Eric Bartels

8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Thursday, through Feb. 2, Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, 5340 N. Interstate Ave., 503-235-1101, www.thirdrailrep.org, $16-$25