Lighting Jar Theatre Company’s production of The Dreamer Examines His Pillow marks the UK premiere of this lesser-known work by John Patrick Shanley (of Doubt fame). While The Dreamer Examines His Pillow hardly has the chilling intensity of his later, Pullitzer Prize-winning drama, this production at the Old Red Lion Theatre is an excellent introduction to one of his more pensive works.

It’s 1983 in New York City, and the play’s three characters are all dealing with serious personal conflict. Living in squalor during the harsh Reagan era is only of minor concern to Tommy (Kieran Moloney), who is too wrapped up in his own self-reflection to maintain relationships, finances, or any sense of identity. Donna (Stacie Bono), his ex-girlfriend, tries unsuccessfully to make sense of Tommy and the residual feelings they have for each other, despite being furious about the fact that he’s recently started sleeping with her 16-year-old sister. Donna seeks out the help of her father, who is a miserable, alcoholic widow and retired painter (Jason Will). The three characters explore questions of identity and love, while introspectively searching for answers about the past, present, and future.

Strong and committed acting gives this piece its power. While he could easily be viewed as selfish or self-obsessed, Kieran Moloney’s honest performance as Tommy reveals the internal conflict that fuels his sometimes-odd behaviour. Stacie Bono’s strong yet vulnerable Donna is the driving force of the play, pursuing clarity in her life and relationship with such urgency that the audience can’t help but share a stake in her goal. Jason Will gives a dynamic, high-energy performance as Bill, subtly showing his own personal journey as he guides Donna and Tommy through theirs.

Anil Douglas’s direction makes good use of the small, upstairs space at the Old Red Lion, and is smart to keep the play moving at a quick pace. The play sometimes falters in its tendency to frequently give the characters lengthy, superfluous monologues that feel too self-conscious among the otherwise natural dialogue. While this flaw is inherent to the material, the actors tackle these challenging bits with expertise, usually salvaging these awkward moments in the text.
The Old Red Lion provides the ideal space for this intimate play, and Celestine Healey and Emma Witter’s set design was versatile, appropriately conveying two different homes while using only one stationary backdrop. The size of the Old Red Lion’s venue allows the audience to appreciate the subtleties in the thoughtful performances, which was definitely necessary for a play that is so focused on self-reflection and personal exploration.

While The Dreamer Examines His Pillow may not be the sparkly, high stakes drama that Doubt is,  it is a more subtly thought-provoking piece. Lightning Jar Theatre Company does an impressively commendable job of bringing it to life on the UK stage, with special praised owed to the cast for successfully working their way through the play’s less brilliant moments.

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 16 February. For more information and tickets, click here.