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Lonely People Search for Connection in "Shining City" at the Beck Center 

There's a reason you shouldn't store apples next to onions in your fridge. The apples will soon take on the flavor of the onions, since apples have a lot of air space between the cells, space that is quickly occupied by the onions.

Lest you fear you've stumbled into a food-storage tutorial by mistake, note that there is one apple and three onions in the play Shining City by Conor McPherson, now at the Beck Center. This is a script that is a delicately — even fiendishly — balanced study of how Ian, an ex-priest turned therapist, gropes in the dark to find his way, even as he is surrounded by three other people with their own pressing issues.

Ian is the apple in this tidy little crisper, set in Dublin, Ireland, as he listens to and then unconsciously absorbs the behavior of others. It's a fascinating construct in theory, but at the opening Saturday performance the balance was ever so slightly off-kilter, turning McPherson's naturalistic dialogue into a procession of Pinter-esque and Mamet-like truncated affectations and half-finished thoughts.

That's a shame, because the writing itself has much to offer. The 90-minute one-act features 30-something Ian and his 54-year-old patient John, a man who has been seeing the ghost of his wife ever since she died in a car accident. John is so unnerved by this he has moved into a bed-and-breakfast to avoid the haunting specter.

Three of the five scenes in the play involve these two men, and their relationship is challenging to negotiate on stage. This is because, as you would expect in a therapy session, John does almost all of the talking with Ian often relegated to an encouraging "Yes" now and then and some random "Uh-huhs." As John unloads his miseries in the first scene, we catch the drift of a man who was desperately lonely in his childless marriage.

Then, in the second scene, Ian has an encounter with Neasa (Ursula Cataan), a woman with whom he's had a troubled personal relationship, along with a baby he insisted on bringing into the world. Neasa, who has recently had sex with another man who communicates with her more effectively, has come to Ian's office for what she thinks might be a reconciliation. But Ian, overloaded with empathy for John, has been influenced by the earlier conversation and rejects her advances. In McPherson's script, there is just as much happening in the silences as there are in the words. One can sense Ian's insecurity as he tries to negotiate a path in his new non-celibate world where he suddenly has different choices and compelling responsibilities.

In the third scene, John is back and launches a long monologue confessing to his attraction to another woman while married, sharing his guilt about that along with his visit to a brothel. This is all fairly mundane stuff for the most part, but the events are cataclysmic for John. Not to mention for Ian, who is listening carefully and absorbing like a sponge the options he now has in his life.

Robert Hawkes, who plays John, is a veteran actor of prodigious talents. But on this evening, the virtually one-person scene was quietly grinding rather than gripping as John hashes out even the tiniest actions in his past. The glitch here, as in other parts of the production, is that we don't feel there's as much at stake as there actually is.

The fresh life options that Ian now has at his disposal are expressed in the penultimate scene, when Ian brings a young man named Laurence (Nicholas Chokan) to his office for an initial attempt at gay sex. Again, there are important elements that don't register as powerfully as they should: Ian's wrenching desire and the fact that Laurence is married, has a child and is hooking just to make money.

As Ian, Adam Heffernan has the most challenging role of all since he often has to communicate his yearnings wordlessly. The staging by director Bernadette Clemens doesn't help him greatly, since the focus of the audience is often directed at John and the others. In order for us to experience the changes happening to Ian, we have to see him. But in the long middle scene with John, Ian is sitting far away from John with his back to most of the audience.

Also ringing a false note are the two major pieces of furniture in Ian's office: a fairly lush tufted leather couch and matching chair. As a former young priest and neophyte therapist, his crib might logically look a bit less upscale.

In all likelihood, the precise balance that Shining City requires will develop and improve as the run continues, since all the players are proven talents. Good thing, since this deceptively intricate script deserves the best production possible.

Shining City

Through May 1 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org

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