Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s Shining City raises a question about our demons: do we make them up to punish ourselves, or do they exist outside us in the world? For most of the play, the answer seems to be that we are haunted by our actions and their repercussions, the gravest of which may come to seem like independent agents. But the play leaves the other answer on the table, too, without entirely embracing either of them.
John thinks they’re out there, and he wants Ian, a fledgling therapist, to help him avoid them. A few months back, John’s wife died in what he calls a horrific crash. “I don’t know where she would have been coming from or going to,” he says a couple of times, as if knowing might have made a difference. But the other night he saw her in the house. She was standing at the front door, half behind it, soaking wet, her hair stuck to her head. He thought she would vanish like those squiggles you see in the corner of your eye, but she didn’t vanish, so he ran out through the door, right past her. Now he can’t sleep, and he’s afraid to go back home.
“Do you believe me?”he asks.
Ian used to be a priest, so he may have once believed in the existence of spirit creatures —demons, ghosts, and angels —but he’s left the church, perhaps because he doesn’t believe in such things anymore. That decision may explain Ian’s haunted look and his distraction while John, his first client, tries to tell his story. The imprint of a cross on the wall in back of John, apparently a place where the symbol itself once hung, probably makes it harder for Ian to look at the suffering man.
“I don’t believe you’re making it up,”he tells John, who clearly is suffering. He begins both of his therapy sessions with a moment of great theatrical investment: urgently, as if this alone will help, he pours himself a glass of water and he drinks it down, eyes closed, head tilting further back and further back, making sure the last drops fall into his mouth. Then he pinches his face together, bends forward at the waist, and blows out all his breath, not relieved or quenched so much as saved from something, just in time.
Is he thirsty from running away from the ghost of his dead wife? Or from the feeling that he didn’t love her well enough?
John tells the story of his mediocre marriage in unfinished sentences that accurately evoke what comes out of your mouth when you start to speak without knowing how to say what you mean: you go as far as words will take you, then you grimace, and sputter, and throw up your hands. Ron Litman, who plays John, gestures and sputters with such conviction that you can almost see the shapes out there beyond the place where he stops speaking—just as you can see the shape of the cross that isn’t on the wall any more. He has floppy cheeks and bulging eyes, which he seems to push further out of his face when tension builds inside. He always speaks to something out there in the distance, turning to Ian only when his sentence won’t go any further.
Closes September 21, 2014
Scena Theatre at
Lab Theatre II
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $35 – $40
Thursdays thru Sundays
Lee Ordeman plays Ian as a man who doesn’t yet know what’s expected from him in the world beyond the cloth, or what he hopes it will give him. He and the woman who “helped [him] escape from the church” and their infant child have been living with Ian’s brother while he puts together the money they need to find a home of their own, but now he’s left his brother’s house to escape from that woman and child. When she comes to his office for an explanation, all he can say is that he just can’t take it, he just can’t take it! That statement explodes from him with emotional violence that makes his demons seem at least as real as the one tormenting John, and possibly more dangerous.
But are they all in his head, or do they have some independent reality, like the dust on the wall that shapes the cross that isn’t there?
Surely the former, not the latter. Men like John and Ian and me are haunted by the consequences of our actions, the ripple-effects of which extend beyond our expectations into the space coherent sentences can’t reach. When we acknowledge those consequences through therapy, or weaken their hold on us with something like sex, we move on into better lives, as John and Ian seem to do at the end of this play.
Either that, the final moment of the play suggests, or the world is full of things that we don’t understand.
Shining City by Conor McPherson. Directed by Robert McNamara. Featuring Lee Ordeman, Ron Litman, Ellie Nicoll, and Kevin O’Reilly . Set design: ProScenia Design assisted by Elizabeth McFadden . Costume design: Megan Holeva . Lighting design: Daniel Schrader . Dialect coach: Jessica Hansen . Properties artisan: Toni Goldberg . Dramaturg: Gabriele Jakobi . Sound design Denise R. Rose . Master carpenter: Dave Humke . Stage manager: Lena Salins . Produced by Scena Theatre. Reviewed by Mark Dewey.
Mark Dewey . DCTheatreScene Shining City raises a question about our demons: do we make them up to punish ourselves, or do they exist outside us in the world?
Chris Klimek . City Paper [Conor McPherson] was newly divorced and newly sober by the time of Shining City, a vivid and convincing dissection of regret.
Andrew White . BroadwayWorld Then there are …the chimeras of lives we might have led and relationships just within our grasp that, for whatever reason, were never meant to be.
Roger Catlin . MDTheatreGuide Shining City is thought to be the pinnacle of playwright Conor McPherson’s powers,
Cyle Durkee . DCMetroTheaterGuide Conor McPherson loves the supernatural. His plays exude an otherworldliness that seeps into the dialogue and infects the players.