The play is dark, but the acting shines in Shining City

The night after I saw Shining City, I had a dream. It started with some reassuringly everyday stuff about working in a kitchen with a small, spry, hyper-conventional and hyper-competent aproned woman — we seemed to be covering a toaster with lavish decorations and a thick coat of frosting. But then she left, and in the empty kitchen, I was suddenly filled with terror. I realized that I would now be alone for the rest of my life, utterly alone, day after despairing day, walking through a lonely gray future, facing my final hours. There are words I'd normally use to describe a feeling of existential loneliness — words and phrases like "chasm," "void, "yawning," "vast, dark sea," "the sensation of reeling through infinite black space" — and they all apply here. But they're also insufficient. They prettify and poeticize something so grim and final that, confronted with it, you feel your soul shrinking inside you.

Playwright Conor McPherson is a poet of loneliness. In an earlier play, The Weir, the regulars at a rural Irish pub kept the dark at bay by telling each other ghost stories — and then, one by one, they had to leave the warm, lighted place and walk into the night alone. In Shining City, a patient, John, visits a therapist, an ex-priest named Ian, who appears to be calm and in control, reserved, perhaps even mildly humorous. John is trying to explain something that can't be explained — that he saw the ghost of his wife after she'd died in a traffic accident, a specific figure in a red coat, half hidden by a door, and that the vision was so terrifying he had to leave the house he'd shared with her and sleep in a bed-and-breakfast. Throughout this recitation, as well as those that follow, Ian is oddly detached; he doesn't bother with the empathetic prompts therapists usually use; his expression almost never communicates comprehension or fellow feeling — though he is remarkably assiduous in anticipating John's needs, filling a water glass, gesturing toward a seat, proffering Kleenex. After the session, when Ian's girlfriend appears to ask why he's abandoned her and their baby, the gulf between the two is chilling. He can't live with her, he says, offering no more explanation.

Eventually, we learn about the silences between John and his doomed wife, and something about Ian's own stifled proclivities. Through the entire course of the play, no one touches anyone else — with one surprising exception, when Ian brings a rent boy to his office. And even during this scene, the most profound moment of tenderness is one preceding — anticipating — touch. Children, the only possible escape from time's malevolence, are spoken of with indifference by Ian, longing and regret by John.

McPherson's language constantly attempts to communicate the ineffable, and his ghosts are an extension of this attempt: If there are no words to frame reality, it makes sense to resort to the supernatural. How could Shakespeare have expressed the murkiness of evil better than through witches? The characters in Shining City speak in stops and starts; they stutter and repeat; John produces great waterfalls of words. And beneath all this, you hear a melancholy, hypnotic and eternal music.

There's a point at which a text leaves the playwright's hands and becomes the property of the actors. Working with Richard Pegg, always a meticulous director, the actors give breath and humanity to these complex and enigmatic characters. They are deeply immersed in their roles, and their silences are as eloquent as the words they speak; we don't think of them as acting on stage, but simply as living and being in front of us. As Ian, Josh Hartwell communicates all kinds of unexpressed and inexpressible conflicts. Ken Street's John comes across as ordinary as the shlub you see at the bus stop every day, but when he breaks, his anguish is so huge, you don't know whether what you're feeling is sympathy or embarrassment. Oh — and he can also be funny, a little, even here. Laura Norman plays Ian's girlfriend, Neasa; her role is small, and we never get inside her head. Still, we sense the currents roiling her mind. And while Kevin Lowry's performance lacks the depth of the others, he does make a cheeky rent boy — in at least two senses of the word.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman