Conor McPherson’s The Shining City takes some amazing theatrical risks. No, wait, make that anti-theatrical. Imagine the exact opposite of a blockbuster movie: frantic cuts, pulse-drubbing pace, blaring sounds that belt you daffy.
Shining City is 98 (almost hushed) minutes long, no intermission. For most of the time, two people sit in chairs and talk. The stage picture’s relentlessly static. Often the dialogue edges beyond where words can go. Sentences trail off, as the speaker draws a blank. And when the talk ceases, dead air reigns, and look out below!
Monologues dominate the five scenes. And a risk I don’t recall seeing before: the one in scene three must run 20 minutes.
In effect, McPherson reverts back to the most ancient of dramatic forms: sheer storytelling. Only in this case, the campfire is a new therapist’s office, in Dublin, Ireland. The tellers are the counselor, his soon-to-be-ex-lover, a guilt-drenched widower, and the ghosts that won’t go away.
McPherson laces his works with the paranormal. In The Veil, when she plays the piano, young Hannah hears someone “singing. Or crying. I forget which.” In The Seafarer, three men play poker; one might be Mephistopheles. In The Weir, men in a pub tell ghost stories. The playwright doesn’t opt for or against the existence of ghosts. He’s more concerned with what people make of them.
You could subtitle Shining City “therapist, heal thyself,” since Ian would benefit from a few decades on the couch. An ex-priest, his signature expression is “sort things out”: ordering his almost barren office (up four flights of stairs in an otherwise empty building); his collapsing relationship with Neasa (and their daughter); his sexuality; and — the playwright suggests — his soul.
The characters have been cut off from the cultural explanations that keep the demons at bay. Ian left the church and now is in transition from one official set of answers to another. So is Ian’s first patient, John. His wife died in a horrible car crash. That it was sudden sent John spinning. That he’d been unfaithful made him wobble. That her ghost haunts their house — and accuses him of the accident? — knocked him flat. He moved out and lives in a B&B. Every time John hears the sound of an ice cream van, he senses, and often sees, her ghost, wearing the flaming-red coat he gave her to assuage his guilt.
Ion Theatre’s production begins with a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” (about which Sam Shepard once said, but didn’t say why, he needed courage to hear that song). The first line of the chorus is, “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.” But McPherson’s characters haven’t been dragged, they’ve fallen away. Shining City is about lapses: of faith (Ian), of commitment (Ian, John, and Neasa), of socially acceptable behavior. They fell from standards they either couldn’t meet or didn’t care to.
Claudio Raygoza’s set underlines this in-between-ness. When the play begins, Ian is still moving into his office: whitewashed brick walls, almost empty bookcase, uncluttered desk. Outside the picture window, backdrop artist Ron Logan painted a Dublin panorama. The most prominent feature, the tall spire of a church, could be yet another ghost.
Shining City’s the kind of play critics shouldn’t say too much about. Just when you think you have a character figured out, McPherson turns your certainty into the uncertainty of Ian, John, Neasa, and Laurence (about whom a review should leave alone, except to say that Zack Bonin plays him convincingly and that Laurence’s alienation corroborates the others’).
Jessica John, who designed the excellent, tweedy costumes, is one of San Diego’s most versatile actors. As scorned Neasa, she gets to cut loose. In a sense, her irate, hair-on-fire encounter with ex-lover Ian would be a red letter, bang down the walls, breakthrough therapy session — if she were a paying client. After she unloads, it appears that at least one exorcism is successful. Maybe not.
As Ian (John’s real-life husband), Francis Gercke does quality work as an essentially passive being. Who is this guy? Does even he know? Ian’s motives may be unfathomable. Gercke suggests them with subtle tics and twitches — and sets them far enough apart so that they offer no easy answers.
Claudio Raygoza coached the dialects, and the Irish accents ring true. He also plays John, in whom guilt inflates like a balloon. In scene three, Raygoza does the extended monologue. It’s a tour de force and, for good measure, he kicks up at the end. Brilliant work!
One question Raygoza raises eloquently: has John’s therapy popped his balloon or just let some air out for a while? Has the “talking cure,” like a church confession, evicted his ghost? And has Ian, apparently learning from John’s process, banished his? In only two months?
The Shining City, by Conor McPherson
Ion Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Directed by Glenn Paris, cast: Zack Bonin, Francis Gercke, Jessica John, Claudio Raygoza; scenic design, Raygoza; costumes, Jessica John; lighting, Karin Filijan; sound, James Dirks
Playing through September 28: Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m.