Director William Brown knew what he was doing when he cast Writers Theatre's Midwest premiere of "Port Authority," Conor McPherson's 2001 meditation on love and regret as expressed by three generations of Irish men.
Patrick Clear, Rob Fenton and John Gray aren't just good actors. They're first-rate storytellers, which is essential in a play like this consisting entirely of monologues -- lyrical, artfully composed variations on similar themes woven together by Irish playwright McPherson ("The Weir," "Shining City"), a master of the form.
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"Port Authority"★ ★ ★ 1/2
Location: Writers Theatre, Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe. (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 16, 2014
Running time: About 95 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Street parking nearby
Rating: For adults, contains mature themes and language
Unfolding on a low stage at the back of a Glencoe bookstore, against a brick wall illuminated by tiny, haphazardly draped lights, this brief yet poignant drama is all talk and no action. What makes it compelling is McPherson's writing, and his insight into ordinary folks who find a way to live with the choices they made without placing blame, but not without remorse.
Lanky, fresh-faced Fenton plays unemployed Kevin, a twenty-something drifter who has moved out of his parents' home and into a rundown rental with three friends. Among them is Claire, the unavailable girl with whom Kevin is infatuated.
Chicago stalwart Clear (rock-solid as ever) plays elderly widower Joe, a self-described everyman who recalls a decades-earlier infatuation with a neighbor's wife.
Gray, the understudy who stood in for regular cast member John Hoogenakker at the weekend performance I attended, played middle-aged, middle-class alcoholic Dermot. Having inexplicably landed a great new job, the perpetually embarrassed Dermot is ill-at-ease among his new, posh colleagues.
The link between the characters is whisper-thin. The tangential relationships between them matter little. It's actually their shared experiences of isolation, loss and regret that connect them, that connects anyone who's ever wondered what might have been.
Nothing about Brown's quiet, candid production feels contrived. The actors transition seamlessly from one monologue to the next, like jazz musicians tossing a melody back and forth during a late-night set.
Fenton, who has made a big impression in the four years since his Chicago-area debut in TimeLine Theatre's "The History Boys," expertly conveys Kevin's conflicting emotions. Throughout the play and in one particular interminable, aching silence near the end of the play, we perceive in Fenton's expression affection, frustration and despair warring within this young man. It's a terrific bit of acting.
The same can be said of the unfailingly honest Clear, who delivers brilliantly Joe's recollection of the night when he might have acted upon his attraction and his fear of almighty rebuke.
"You tell yourself that God hasn't seen you," he says, at once earnest, hopeful and ashamed, while "Let's Fall in Love" echoes quietly in the background.
Initially hesitant, Gray stumbled over some of the dialogue, understandable since understudies typically don't get much rehearsal time. And yet, Gray ably expressed the character's feeling of inferiority, his awareness of his own shortcomings and his self-loathing. He truly came into his own late in the play while recounting Dermot's post-business-trip reunion with his wife, in an affecting, humanizing scene that more than compensated for earlier, minor missteps.
One final note illustrating how carefully thought-out Writers' production is: Behind the audience are shelves containing various packages. Besides referencing the parcel Joe receives, they also suggest those items left at docks or bus terminals, unclaimed, like the love McPherson's men might have had.