By Conor McPherson
Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“And how stands the city on this winter night? More prosperous, more secure, and happier than it was 8 years ago. But more than that: After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.” (Ronald Reagan’s “Shining City Upon A Hill” Farewell Speech, January 11 1989)
America in the late 1980s was for Ronald Reagan a shining city upon a hill, “a magnet for all who must have freedom.” This nation was pristine, flawless, offering to all who would respond to its beckoning the opportunity for improvement, self-discovery, and community. Many nation-states and their urban centers offer similar promises to the “pilgrims from lost places who are hurtling through darkness, toward home.” John (Matthew Broderick), Ian (Billy Carter), Neasa (Lisa Dawn), and Laurence (James Russell) are four such pilgrims navigating Dublin’s promises in Conor McPherson’s “Shining City” currently running at the newly renovated Irish Repertory Company.
James Joyce wrote, “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” Conor McPherson has accomplished the same goal in his “Shining City.” The stories told here are universal stories of self-discovery, motivation, fear, loneliness, and making choices – for better or for worse. Stories of recognizing opportunities to “sort out” life’s challenges and unexpected changes.
John has been seeing the ghost of his deceased wife Mari in their house and, thinking he might be a “nutcase,” he visits psychotherapist Ian to “sort it all out.” John is former priest Ian’s first client and – as the audience learns – the roles of penitent and priest and client and therapist often become reversed in Mr. McPherson’s engaging and complex script. John’s confessional sessions reveal a lonely individual who rarely communicated with his wife before her fatal accident. Those sessions somehow give Ian permission to admit to his girlfriend Neasa it might be time to part ways.
“Shining City” features three (at least) parallel stories, parallel situations and conflicts involving dyads of human interaction without authentic human connection. There is no communication between John and his wife; none between Ian and his girlfriend Neasa; and initially even less between John and Laurence the sex worker John turns to for comfort and understanding. In these parallel stories, the characters discover communication and non-judgmental affirmation from very unexpected places.
Under Ciarán O’Reilly’s meticulous and clean direction, the cast of “Shining City” captures the full range of human emotions including those often roiling beneath the surface waiting to offer redemption and release if expressed. Matthew Broderick gives his character John a sensitive believability that is expressed in dialogue and in lengthy monologues. Mr. Broderick give’s John’s journey from fear to courage authenticity. Billy Carter portrays Ian with a graceful underbelly of frustration and guilt unable to fully disengage from his dysfunctional relationship with Neasa. Lisa Dwan’s Neasa is manipulative, fearful, and determined not to allow Ian to separate from her and their child. And James Russell portrays a young man ravaged by poverty and unemployment to work in places he never expected to labor.
Charlie Corcoran has designed a clean and serviceable set that allows the actors to settle into their roles with ease and comfort. Sven Henry Nelson’s property design creates the illusion of not only the passing of time but the growth of the characters. Martha Hally’s costumes, Michael Gottlieb’s lighting, and M. Florian Staab’s sound successfully complement the action of the play.
During their first session, Ian tells John he sees the ghost of his wife because he needs to. That might be true but one wonders whether Mari’s ghost had its final appearance in the couple’s bathroom. Only time will tell.