John P. McCarthy
- OnStage Associate New York Theatre Critic
Irish playwright Conor McPherson is preoccupied with spectral phenomena and whatever it is that separates the living from the dead. His works are populated by ghosts and pivotal scenes often take place in a transitional atmosphere – in the gloaming or at daybreak, when light and dark bleed into one another.
With wit and sensitivity—plus a willingness to get down in the muck and celebrate rowdy, unseemly behavior—McPherson wants to spur audience members to ponder their mortality and second-guess their assumptions about the interplay between reason and a blend of faith and superstition that some would say is endemic to the Celtic-cum-Catholic worldview.
Another salient feature of McPherson’s plays (see “The Weir” and “St. Nicholas”) is how frequently they showcase the art of storytelling, the great oral tradition of one individual standing up in a pub or parlor, for example, and spinning a yarn that captivates listeners.
When a piece of theatre is dominated by this kind of storytelling (usually via long speeches or de facto monologues), it follows that the talents of the performer delivering the oratory (narratives-within-a-narrative) are paramount to the work’s success. And skillful acting isn’t enough. For the stories to ring true on any level, the storyteller must project authenticity and believability with relatively little help from other actors or extraneous stagecraft.
Fortunately, Hudson Stage Company’s production of McPherson’s 2004 play “Shining City” (which nabbed a Tony nomination for Best Play when it premiered stateside in 2006) is anchored by Derry Woodhouse in the role of John, a guilt-wracked widower haunted by the ghost of his recently departed wife.
Woodhouse rivetingly spills John’s tale in what amount to two long soliloquies. He inhabits the character with such ease, creating a palpable sense of familiarity, that it’s not surprising to learn he’s Irish (a native of Limerick). Credit costume designer Charlotte Palmer-Lane for sending him out in just the right garb, including a perfectly drab jumper. The other design work is also top-notch and faithful to McPherson’s vision.
Seeing the ghost of his wife, who died in a gruesome car wreck, leads John to a cathartic self-reckoning. But he’s not the only one changed by his telling of his own story. It has an effect on Ian (Hamish Allan-Headley), the novice therapist who listens to John in a makeshift consulting room in central Dublin.
Although Ian appears in all five scenes of “Shining City,” which is presented without an intermission and is tautly directed by HSC co-founder Dan Foster, he ends up being the most opaque and mysterious of the play’s four characters. We learn plenty about Ian, who’s manifestly conflicted, yet aren’t given the chance to see what’s going on beneath the surface. This, despite first-rate work by Canadian-born Allan-Headley, whose only discernable slip is allowing a few Canuck vowel inflections to creep into his accent.
After Ian and John’s initial session, which comprises Scene One, Ian’s girlfriend Neasa (Gemma Baird) comes to his office and we find out Ian left the priesthood not too long ago, that they have a baby together, and that their relationship is on shaky ground. The scene doesn’t quite click and I had the impression Baird was pressing a bit hard (particularly when it comes to nailing Neasa’s down-market brogue) in an effort to make it work better.
In his lone scene, Michael Jennings Mahoney does the opposite and successfully underplays the role of the grungy rent boy whom Ian brings to his office for what he claims will be his first encounter with a man. With poignancy and efficiency, what happens next conveys the play’s major theme: the key thing we all seek is caring attention—being treated with sympathy, tenderness, and understanding.
That’s certainly the upshot of the preceding scene, the play’s centerpiece, in which John reveals how he damaged his marriage and his self-esteem while trying to navigate a mid-life crisis. He theorizes that the intense guilt his actions engendered gave rise to his wife’s ghost and that, whether real or imagined, she’s appearing in order to him redeem him.
Like many moments in “Shining City,” this comes off as a little too neat and tidy. It illustrates a major pitfall of a work featuring so much discursive reflection, as opposed to dialogue and action. When the characters are so on point, drama and suspense are put in jeopardy. Their words can overwhelm the plot, as well as the subtext or any feelings or ideas that resist verbal expression. When the characters themselves spell so much out, it can seem there’s little left for the audience to interpret or discover. (Incidentally, McPherson handles many of the same themes in a more circumspect and yet satisfyingly fulsome way in the 2009 movie “The Eclipse,” which he directed and co-wrote.)
The ending of “Shining City” can be read as McPherson’s acknowledgment of this possibility. In the last scene, John comes to the office with a gift and finds Ian packing up to move to another city. The two wax philosophical about what John has gone through and life in general. There’s a sense of hope, if not optimism, because it’s clear their work together has helped John. And yet after listening to John unburden himself, Ian’s life appears more topsy-turvy then ever. When John presses Ian about whether he thinks he really saw his wife’s ghost, the former priest gives a Jesuitical answer worthy of a practiced shrink. To paraphrase: “Whether an apparition is real or not isn’t important. What matters is how seeing it makes you feel, what it does to you.”
Then in the final beats of the play McPherson offers up an existential jolt that serves to cut through all the verbiage and make a calm, rational approach to dealing with pain and uncertainty seem woefully inadequate. Thus, its flaws notwithstanding, “Shining City” ultimately shows the power that humane, intelligent theatre can have when it goes beneath language to a primordial level where being speaks louder than words.
“Shining City” runs at Hudson Stage Company at the Whippoorwill Hall Theatre, North Castle Library in Armonk through October 28, 2017