BWW Reviews: A Classic Dublin Confessional: McPherson's SHINING CITY at Scena Theatre
There is haunting, and then there is haunting. There are the usual ghosts and goblins who crop up so often that whenever we hear of them, the first impulse is to roll our eyes and say to ourselves, "not again." Conor McPherson knows them well, and knows they'll only get you so far.
Then there are those others-the chimeras of lives we might have led and relationships just within our grasp that, for whatever reason, were never meant to be. Now, those ghosts-utterly invisible yet painfully present-can hound you to your grave. Conor McPherson's genius is in knowing that these hauntings will make you squirm in your seat. And Robert McNamara's current production of Shining City at the Atlas Performing Arts Center gives us a lasting impression of McPherson's poignant work.
Shining City is unnerving in ways that creep up on you; it begins quietly enough with an awkward widower, John, arriving for his first appointment with a newly-minted therapist, Ian. It seems John has seen his wife's ghost in his house, and is so terrified he has moved to a B&B nearby. So far, so dull; but over the course of his visits we come to realize that this ghost is only the tip of the iceberg. And as John proceeds to spill his secrets the full horror of modern life and its discontents is laid before you. This is not a monster you can avoid by looking away.
In a positively riveting performance Ron Litman, as John, gives us a contemporary Everyman whose conscience will never let him be; it's not his wife's sudden death that bothers him nearly as much as the unfulfilled and unfulfillable desires that drove him away from home long before her passing. He is innocent, in one sense, of any wrongdoing; but he knows that deep down he has committed sins no man can ever live down. Litman's performance is unforgettable, by turns comic and gut-wrenching.
It turns out that our therapist Ian has his own issues, too; he has taken to avoiding his girlfriend Neasa who is the mother of his child; she and the baby have been forced to move in with Ian's brother and sister-in-law, a claustrophobic arrangement that might explain why Ian prefers to sleep in his office.
As Ian, Lee Ordeman has the smartly dressed-and-pressed look of an urban professional, and we get a glimpse of the heartthrob priest that first attracted Neasa. Ordeman's ability to channel the inner peace of a (former) man of the cloth is all the more remarkable when we consider that Ian's life is a shambles. Unfortunately Neasa, the lone female character here, is so poorly drawn that all we see is her panic and frustration; McPherson doesn't show us what on earth attracted Ian to Neasa in the first place, and in the end she is more of a nuisance and comic foil than anything else. Ellie Nicoll mines the comic aspects of her character well, giving the scanty material provided her a touch more than it deserves.
Of all the characters here only one, Laurence, appears to be comfortable in his own skin-which is odd, because his chosen profession is so far outside the mainstream. His encounter with Ian, late in the play, is strange because Ian seems only somewhat inclined to use Laurence to quench a certain furtive desire; Kevin O'Reilly's assured, matter-of-fact performance puts the confusion and angst of the other characters in ironic relief.
Mevan Holeva's costumes effectively evoke a vague, recent past and communicate the vulnerable middle and working classes of McPherson's Dublin, and Denise R. Rose's ingenious sound design give us a clear sense of the world outside the unitary set of Ian's office. ProScenia Design offers us the scuffed, smudged walls of Ian's office, with its silhouettes of photos and paintings from past tenants; perhaps the most effective element is the silhouette-cross by the office door, a subtle symbol of the state of this "Shining City" and its lost spirituality.
McPherson's true gift is the monologue, supplemented here by some brilliantly-choreographed, staccato dialogue which captures the conflicted longings of his characters. Like many realistically-drawn plays the gift of gab can seem a bit indulgent to some tastes, but the rewards of Shining City more than make up for any restlessness that might ensue as you wait for the next plot twist. The play's insight into the male psyche is pitch-perfect, disturbingly so; and although McPherson didn't know exactly what to do with the female of the species in this play, it is clear from his later work - the recent period play The Veil in particular-that he can give women their due.
Production Photo: Ron Litman as John. Photography by Jae Yi.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
Shining City runs August 16-September 21 at the Atlas Performing Arts center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the Atlas box office at 202-399-7993 or online at https://atlasarts.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0Si0000004jL61EAE .