Shining City’ Casts Murky Spotlight on Haunted Human Psyches
The Studio Theatre’s Washington premiere of “Shining City” is a psychological delicacy. Billed as a drama, but padded with endearing humor, it shines a searchlight on what lurks deep inside the psyche and must bubble to the surface lest we explode.
The premise is simple: In downtown Dublin, a symbiotic friendship develops between a therapist, Ian, and his client, John. An amiable middle-age widower, John recounts his grief over the loss of his wife, Mari, who died in a car crash. In the process of listening to John, Ian, who has just left the priesthood for his new career, privately sorts through his own relationship questions.
Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s exploration into his characters’ minds is literal on the most obvious level—the play is staged in a psychiatrist’s office, after all, where the two men meet to methodically unravel the problems at hand.
Yet, just below the plot’s surface nags a tormenting layer of uncertainty. It is here—in this nonlinear, ambiguous, metaphysical realm—where the play’s core lies and where the men’s struggles for sanity are not so easy to identify and solve.
It’s been said that McPherson, a former alcoholic, writes plays to exorcize demons. “Shining” is no different. Both characters harbor troubling secrets. John, plagued with guilt about his extramarital affair before Mari’s death, swears her ghost is now an unwanted guest in his house. Ian, who inexplicably left his girlfriend and newborn, doesn’t have a ghost but rather a skeleton in his closet, threatening to come out. The play explores the notion of apparitions—real and imaginary—that must be confronted before there are resolutions.
McPherson uses the juxtaposition between the mundane, ordinary world of failed relationships and the combustible world of uncontrolled emotions and otherworldly visions to pique and hold our interest. This works largely because the audience seamlessly identifies with the characters’ experiences, and the script’s structure and Artistic Director’s Joy Zinoman’s direction demand this type of immediacy.
The entire play takes place in the psychiatrist’s office and lasts 90 minutes, with no intermission—not unlike a long therapy session. John sits center stage on the shrink’s couch and projects his emotions straight out to the audience, rather than to Ian, who tentatively prods him from upstage. The strained, vulnerable dialogue between the two men as they search for trust and comfort is painfully familiar. Taken from its uninvolved, anonymous comfort, the audience is propelled onto the stage to share the burdens of these men as their own—no matter how uncomfortable or squeamish.
The script is primarily a showcase for four-time Helen Hayes winner Edward Gero, who, as John, weaves his long-winded tale into a running monologue—an appropriate vehicle for a therapy session. Gero, considered by many as one of Washington’s most acclaimed actors, is possibly best known for being a company member of the Shakespeare Theatre. He was last seen at the Studio Theatre in another major Irish work, Brian Friel’s “Afterplay,” and his performance here in “Shining” is dynamic, down to earth, and unabashedly unguarded.
Donald Carrier, as Ian, does a brilliantly understated job of treading the balance between his character’s insecurity in his new profession and his unselfconscious empathy for John. Laoisa Sexton, as Neasa, Ian’s jilted girlfriend, and Chris Genebach, as Laurence, Ian’s rough acquaintance, round out an already strong ensemble.
The play is uncannily realistic. Although it only has one act, it is separated into many scenes, some of which last only moments so that the characters and the audience can catch their breaths and take a deep sigh. These pauses also denote the passage of time. For instance, the lights come up on Ian putting books on a shelf, playing Neil Young on his tape deck, or deciding to put the plant next to his desk. Then the lights dim. These small nuances show the sensitivity McPherson uses to paint a story and prove the power of their effect.
Russell Metheny’s urban set echoes the play’s stark and haunting qualities. Floor-to-ceiling double bay windows frame a blazing sunset behind a church steeple. Ian’s office, which doubles as his living quarters, has outdated, drab furniture and a broken door buzzer to let people in. Although dismal and temporary—Ian decides to move out at play’s end—the setting is a blank slate for relationships to grow and for lives to advance.
McPherson himself said, “I don’t know if it’s my work or Irish work, but rather than the horizontal of, ‘Here we are on earth and how do we deal with each other,’ my plays tend to be vertical: ‘Where do I come from and what … is going to happen?’”
“Shining,” when all is said and done, is an exploration in philosophy. It asks the hard questions of—but doesn’t always answer—the mysteries of the human condition.
Shining City through Dec. 16 Studio Theatre 1501 14th St., NW. Tickets are to . For more information, please call (202) 332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.
About the Author
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.