The Lights of Shangri-La shows us one life-changing autumn day when Crockett Sumner has to deal with some harrowing news from his beloved sister while coming to terms with some upsetting news of his own.
Should You See It?
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The show begins with Crockett Sumner introducing us to his sister, celebrated journalist Penelope ‘Pen’ Sumner, by way of an enthusiastic parody of her broadcasting heyday. His energetic game offers a sharp contrast to the small, soft-spoken woman dying of cancer before us.
Actress Cathy Nobleman does a good job creating Pen as someone very kind-hearted, tender, and loving but her acting falls flat against the intensity of Shaun Toohey’s Crockett. The only time she seems to really capture Pen’s strong, dramatic core is during rage-fuelled exchanges (and a brief interlude at the start of the second act) that are unfortunately few and far between.
The play focuses on family dynamics as Pen tries to convince her brother to open up to his newly-reconciled lover and to come to terms with her condition. These discussions are interspersed with scenes featuring Crockett’s partner and Pen’s daughter. The inclusion of these characters adds variety to the show but ultimately feels unnecessary because of how strongly focused The Lights of Shangri-La is on its two main characters. Off-stage voice acting is a much more effective tool in this show.
Ostensibly this play is about the relationship between siblings but in my opinion, it’s really Crockett’s story. This may be in part because of Toohey’s strong acting: his portrayal of Crockett is riveting and eerily believable. Rarely have I seen a performer become so utterly transformed into the character he’s playing. Toohey made Crockett into someone so real audience members can’t help but to empathize with him, easily making Crockett the star of the show.
However the investment in Crockett doesn’t come only from Toohey, it comes from the script as well. Crockett begins the show as an entertaining and flamboyant man lightheartedly teasing his loved ones but we slowly see this is his way of masking the various fears that gnaw at him as he ages. Crockett ends the show as a very different man and it is this transformation that truly makes the show shine. The heartfelt ending between Crockett and Pen is not only moving but a very special moment in live theater as well.
The Lights of Shangri-La is powerful because it gives us a rich and realistic portrayal of a man coming to accept some of life’s harsher realities, which is something that we all inevitably must face. I can only hope I do so with as much dignity and grace as Crockett.
But that’s just my opinion and I’d love to know what you think. Was the focus of your attention on Crockett Sumner or did you feel he balanced well with Pen? Was the ending appropriate or too sugar-sweet? Did the show resonate with you and transport you to Shangri-La, or was it just another show about families? Join the discussion in the comments below.