The thing about death is, it’s not negotiable.
Sooner or later, we all have to face it.
Till then, it’s hanging out there, somewhere, waiting for us.
And one way we deal with that is by experiencing books, movies, songs, poetry and plays about the inevitability of death. Somehow, when glimpsing the grim reaper through the arts, we feel a little better because, I don’t know, maybe watching other people deal with the specter of mortality makes it all seem more normal.
If that’s your take, then a pair of just-opened plays make be just your cup of tea, since the inevitability of death hangs over both of them like an ax dangling above a doorway in a condemned cabin in the middle of an earthquake.
First, there’s Conor McPherson’s evocative drama “Shining City,” now playing at Main Stage West, in Sebastopol. In this sly, slippery, deceptively unassuming play, the author of “The Weir” and “The Seafarer” has crafted a ghost story, of sorts, in which a troubled Dublin therapist named Ian, played with marvelous intensity and fragile humanity by Nick Sholley, gains a new client: an anxious insomniac named John, played brilliantly by John Craven.
Poor old John. A steady-minded businessman, he is shaken by the fact that he keeps seeing the ghost of his recently deceased wife. And she doesn’t seem happy. Unable to sleep, afraid to enter his own house, John believes he’s being haunted for certain unspoken sins. Ian, convinced his new client is simply struggling with feelings of grief and unresolved guilt, gently coaxes the old man toward facing his fears, all the while carrying his own soul-crushing battle with shame and despair.
With carefully crafted delicacy, the playwright takes us through Ian’s increasingly powerful therapy sessions with John, scenes that play out against a pair of shattering close encounters Ian has with the fierce-but-frail Neassa (Ilana Niernberger) the mother of Ian’s child, and with Laurence (John Browning) a sensitive street hustler who brings Ian an unexpected understanding of how the world works. Elegantly staged by director Beth Craven, beautifully acted by the entire ensemble – with special kudos to Craven for the astonishing twenty-minute monologue that comes mid-way through the show – this rich, emotionally powerfully story is more than just a chilling ghost story. In the end, “Shining City” – glowing with intelligence, humor and humanity – reveals itself as a lyrical, lush look at the conversations we have, and the choices we all make, to feel alive in a world haunted by the ghosts of our past decisions.
Next up, “Bonnie and Clyde: the musical.”
It is widely known that the notorious Depression-era outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrows died violently in a hail of gunfire. In a car. In Texas. In composer Frank Wildhorn’s musical reworking of the bank robbers’ lives, the legendary tale begins at the end, the sound of gunfire, the flash of light, and famous fugitives’ bloody bodies dead in their car.
Ivan Menchell’s clever script then jumps back in time to Bonnie and Clyde’s childhoods, gradually working the story’s way back to where it began. It’s an effective choice.
As the title characters, Taylor Bartolucci and James Bock have some killer chemistry, thick enough to spread on a baguette, and they are matched in poise and presence by Scottie Woodard and Heather Buck as Clyde’s brother Buck and sister-in-law Blanche. Barry Martin, as a local preacher, brings some impressive southern gospel charm.
The somewhat uneven musical score does have a few strong moments, mostly when emphasizing the tragic love story at the heart of the play. On Jesse Dreikosen’s first-rate set of jagged wooden slats, director Craig Miller keeps the tension building and building and building, right to end.
And that’s no small feat, considering the fact that, hey, everyone knows the ending.
“Bonnie & Clyde” runs Thursday–Sunday through March 15 at 6th Street Playhouse. 6thstreetplayhouse.com.
“Shining City” runs Thursday–Sunday through March 15 at Main Stage West. Maistagewest.com.