by Conor McPherson
Directed by Joy Zinoman
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
That there’s an element of mythical unworldliness in Conor McPherson’s mesmerizing play Shining City is implied in the title, that echoes scripture, “A city on a hill cannot be hid.” Or “Let your light shine before men.” The image was borrowed from the Sermon on the Mount by St. Augustine in City of God and made contemporary in Ronald Reagan’s speeches about America as the “shining city on a hill,” especially in his farewell.
The Irish love to have the last word, especially when it comes to an allegorical journey called life. And McPherson, the playwright is no exception.
In his exquisite and illuminating Shining City, as staged and lovingly directed by Joy Zinoman, everyone seems to be on a self-seeking quest for individual fulfillment. All the characters appear to be without roots and on a journey to find out where home is. When his wife is killed in a car crash, grief-stricken John (Edward Gero), leaves his house for a bed and breakfast after receiving haunts from her ghost. He seeks treatment from Ian (Donald Carrier), a psychotherapist who has left the Roman Catholic priesthood.
So what happens when John, our story teller, tells his personal ghost story to the ex-priest turned therapist,? Does John purge himself of guilt and grief over loss to such an extent that it seems logical and real when a ghost appears on stage? Is his ghost a psychological projection? Or are we to believe that ghosts actually exist?
To fully enjoy a McPherson play it helps to consider the Irish Theater with a capital T that blossomed in the 20th century and gave the world lilting speech, natural acting and a hidden Ireland. There are ghosts in W. B. Yeats’ poetry and plays that preserved a metaphysical world of pagan Celtic myth. But Sean O’Casey countered with realism in his plays depicting how a people unite within family and behind brotherhood to transcend an oppressed, rural life on Irish soil. The soul’s cry for freedom brought insurrection that started with the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Now we have Conor McPherson who brings on stage urbanized Irish characters who have gained prosperity and economic freedom from the Brits, but who seem to have lost family and soul along the way. Now the struggle is between individuals pursuing individual goals.
Historical connections are still strong in the way Ian contrasts with John, and the lives of the two men profoundly influence and change the other. Ian, whose name means John in Gaelic, is like John, his client. Ian is driven by guilt and represents an uncertain person in search of himself and some form of spiritual certainty in the “shining city” of Dublin, which ironically is more like a transitional world of purgatory.
Actor Edward Gero delivers a deeply felt, nuanced, inspired performance that builds to an explosive climax and pulls us through a wrenching catharsis of shedding grief. His John is a rough-hewn, knock-down/bounce-back bloke immersed in a soul-struggle, who speaks with low-pitched rhythmical Dublin dialect. This accomplished actor is convinces us he is a man terrified by a ghost from the moment he wanders on stage, like a convict, trapped in his own self-torture.
In two scenes of tightly-written couch therapy, Gero explores his character’s psyche with dramatic flair and widens a peephole into a teeming world of everyone in a modern city. By the time he gets to the telling of his brothel experience, John with his tie loosened into a noose-like position, is a man teetering and perspiring on the brink. We get the idea that just about all human connection in this play lacks intimacy and is based on monetary transactions. Still, what do these people do with their grief and guilt? How do they connect? Gero’s long soliloquy tells us. His performance allows the women, Mari, John’s wife and Vivian, the object of his funny but touching failure at an illicit romance, to come to life on stage although they never physically enter. Was John really responsible for Mari’s death or was it a tragic accident? We have to decide.
From the moment Donald Carrier appears on stage as Ian, a sense of impermanence is established. In his in-between, second floor digs, he’s still unpacking and rearranging a potted plant and considering another move because of parking problems. Supported emotionally by his fiancé, Ian successfully made the painful transition from sacred to secular life when he left the priesthood.
It soon becomes clear that Ian barely knew this young woman, who has not only given birth to his daughter, his immortality, but also worked in a pub to support him financially in his therapy course. With grim stoicism tinged with glimmers of strength, actress Laoisa Sexton vividly portrays Ian’s young lover, Neasa, who faces unwed abandonment with her child and who is forced to board with Ian’s brother. There’s one anguished moment between them where their contentious struggle devolves into arm wrestling and leads up to Ian’s devastating rejection. “I can’t do it,” he brutally tells her, crushing her hopes for reconciliation and just someone to talk to. The way the scene plays out, Ian’s throwing her out with a cold promise of financial support is so stark and irrational in its brevity, it is an act of cruelty incarnate that parallels John’s treatment of his wife.
Still, there is the hope for redemption. Even though both male characters have trouble sharing intimacy, both develop in parallel worlds. Whereas John’s wife Mari couldn’t have children during their long term relationship, Ian, who has a child, has trouble with commitment. Although Ian is actively searching for a way to avoid a marriage with the mother of his child, he still yearns for a way out of his loneliness by making a half-hearted connection with Laurence, a wounded stranger with a crushed hand, sensitively underplayed by Chris Genebach. Ultimately John and Ian appear to come through their tunnel of guilt and grief but do they come through whole?
It isn’t just the playwright’s use of the Dublin dialect in everyday conversation that makes this play powerful. Words seem inadequate for full communion. Sentences are rarely finished but break off repeatedly with “you know” or “I know,” or begin with “What do you mean….?” The dialogue is so skillfully done that there are moments we feel as if we are eavesdropping. Musical bridges for the two months passing of time between each scene come from Neil Young’s and Gene Clark’s American country rock music. The lyrics about loneliness and broken relationships help.
Helen Q. Huang’s costuming is supportive, especially for John’s changes from depressed to dapper man about town. The soaring, vertical set, designed by Russell Metheny, leaves a towering impression of a Dublin office building, and serves for all stage action in Ian’s shabby second floor office and living space. The staircase in the stairwell seems to ascend to an unseen world above. The backdrop of a church steeple silhouetted against a turbulent cloudy sunset, cut off by a window glass, represents a place where communion, confession and penance no longer provide relief.
Which brings us back to that question about the fine line between who we are and how do we react to that ghost? Has John really rid himself of his demons? Is Ian really better off at the end? The characters leave us longing for the existence of a life beyond this life. For another world, maybe another play.
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.
Where: Studio Theatre in the Metheny Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW (Northeast corner of 14th and P Streets)
When: through December 16, 2007. Wed.-Sat, 8 p.m. Sunday 7 p.m. matinees Sat. and Sun., 2 p.m. Select Tuesdays: Nov. 20, 27, Dec. 4 and 11, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $39-$57. Group discounts for parties of 10 or more. Call 202-232-7267. Student, senior citizen (62+) and military discount: $5.00 (except Sat. evenings). Student Rush: $19 for full-time students, one-half hour before curtain on a seating available basis (except Sat. evenings). Call the Box Office, 202-332-3300 or V/TTY 202-667-8436.
Info: http://www.studiotheatre.org/. or call 202-332-3300