by Conor McPherson
Directed by Toni Dorfman
January 29, 2016
What is a ghost? Some people believe in literal ghosts, but a ghost can also be figurative or imaginary. In Conor McPherson’s Shining City, currently being produced by Upstream Theater, the question of ghosts is only the beginning in a story that deals with two men and their different but strangely similar dilemmas. As presented by Upstream, the show is somewhat slow moving but contains some memorable performances and raises some interesting questions.
Ian (Christopher Harris) is a former Catholic priest who has just set up shop as a therapist in Dublin, Ireland. He’s got a girlfriend, Neasa (Em Piro) and a new baby, but he’s not particularly happy. The play is set up as series of sessions between Ian and his patient, John (Jerry Vogel) who suffers from regret regarding the recent death of his wife. He claims to have seen her ghost, but both he and Ian suspect it’s more a manifestation of his guilt regarding his feelings for his wife and how he treated her before she died. Through the course of the play, we learn the details of John’s situation as well as learning more about Ian, whose has his own struggles with guilt concerning his relationship with his girlfriend and his own personal desires. There’s not much else I can say without spoiling the plot, but it deals with many subjects, including personal identity, one’s relationship with others and with God, and the very purpose of life. In fact, two of the books prominently displayed in Ian’s office are titled God and Life Itself.
The play is rather slow moving especially in the first act, focusing on conversation a lot more than action. It’s not until the second act that it becomes clear where the story is going, in fact. There are several philosophical questions dealt with as the parallels between John’s situation and Ian’s become more apparent, and it’s the actors who really make the story. Harris is elusive and enigmatic as the conflicted Ian, providing a listening ear for the more dynamic Vogel as John, whose accounts of his actions are compelling if not entirely sympathetic. There are also good performances by Piro in a smaller role as Ian’s attention-starved girlfriend, and by Pete Winfrey as a man Ian meets and has a revealing conversation with in his office. The central roles, though, are those of Harris and Vogel, and it is their interactions that are the highlight of the production.
Technically the show is presented in a visually stunning manner. With Steve Carmichael’s striking lighting that emphasis shadows and variations of light, and Michael Heil’s well-appointed set, the somewhat tense atmosphere is maintained well. Bonnie Kruger’s costumes, Claudia Horn’s props, and Cristi Johnston’s scenic art also add much to the tone and style of the play. There is also an excellent, atmospheric musical score provided by Farshid Soltanshahi.
This is a play about ghosts in various forms, and two men whose lives are more similar than they may first appear. It’s a well-realized production that revolves mostly around the vivid portrayals of the actors as well as the authentically presented setting. While it does seem confusing and over-long at times, for the most part this is a memorable, thought-provoking play with a strong sense of time and place.
Shining City is being presented by Upstream Theater at the Kranzberg Arts Center until February 14, 2016