The playwright Conor McPherson spins ghost stories. He uses spectral encounters as a way of exploring a theme rooted in the human experience: guilt.
Unfinished business is at the heart of Conor McPherson’s play, Shining City, an often potent and truthful accounting of the way we live. Currently onstage at Quotidian Theatre in Bethesda, Shining City quietly attempts to lay bare no less than the titanic demons that live in the abyss of human alienation – that painful self-awareness that emanates from each man-as-an-island, and the regret and guilt that originates from knowing that your being hurts others’.
The complementary inverse of this idea—the raw, existential yearning for someone to understand you, to care about you, to touch you—is also weighed through McPherson’s anguished telling.
Set in contemporary Dublin over a period of 8 months, the play focuses on two men, Ian (John Decker) an inexperienced therapist who abandoned the priesthood to take up with a bargirl and take a “course” in psychotherapy, a man who practices science because he couldn’t find God; and John (Steve Beall), Ian’s first patient, a man enduring a serious midlife crisis, recently widowed and terrorized by the ghost of his dead wife.
Consequently, the man on the couch pushes the man in the chair to examine his own issues, namely, what does he really want? His estranged girlfriend Neasa (Laura Russell) and the mother of his child? Or something else he’s kept buried all his life that won’t let him comfortably settle without being recognized, not in the arms of another, nor in the confined shelter of the priesthood. Through months of therapy, John’s tragic recounting of his barren marriage and his gradual inability to communicate with his wife triggers Ian to deal with his relationship. John’s quixotic attempt to find some emotional reassurance from a prostitute seems to nudge Ian toward expressing his repressed feelings in an encounter with a street hustler.
The infamous final moment of the play left the audience uncertain; it has famously engendered shock, outrage and bewilderment from Broadway to the West End. From one writer speaking about another, I’ll just say it was a bold, bold stroke.
McPherson’s style and influences are everywhere evident: the use of confessional monologue, masterfully performed by Beall, who reveals John’s story through a captivating mixture of self-loathing and jocular cover-up; the terse, staccato rhythms of David Mamet, an early and important model for McPherson; and the Pinteresque poetry of conversation with all of its attendant “ers” and “ums” and pointedly placed “you knows.”
Beall delivers a tour-de-force performance as the haunted widower. Much of the play turns on his extended monologues, especially Scene Three, where the audience comes face to face with the beating heart of the play. Sitting on a couch, slightly hunched over, crossing and uncrossing his legs, gesturing with his hands, gulping down a glass of water, Beall unravels his guilt-stricken discourse, made up of all the recognizable twists and turns of our own lives. His riveting performance is complicated and raw, compassionate and wry.
I had a problem with John Decker in the role of Ian, and not only because the role of the muted therapist is shackled and the characterization is not entirely convincing. I’m a fan of Decker, and enjoyed him in the role of Leonid in Quotidian’s The Cherry Orchard, but where his acting tendencies may be called for as the awkward, emotionally stunted ex-priest, especially in Scene Four, it appears these same tendencies don’t allow him to pull off Scene Two’s confrontation, and even the routine interactions with Beall are distracting in their self-conscious woodenness. As my companion summed it up: “I wouldn’t want a therapist like that,” referring to Decker’s senile delivery and episodes when he stares at his office wall during Beall’s monologues.
From a production standpoint, the street noise heard outside the office and thoughtful musical interludes played during the scene changes were adroit touches.
Director Jack Sbarbori and Quotidian have staged another finely textured drama that requires patience and listening from the audience to make a mental picture of the action described but not shown. An exercise in elliptical construction notwithstanding, the disconnected scenes fit together superbly. At the end, we’re left with the idea that monsters are birthed from the regrets buried in the details of our lives.
Shining City runs thru Dec 11, 2011 at Quotidian Theatre Company, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD.
Written by Conor McPherson
Directed by Jack Sbarbori
Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company
Reviewed by Roy Maurer