Therapist, Heal Thyself 

In Conor McPherson’s Shining City, the man on the couch forces the man in the chair to confront his own problems.

Shining City

Shining City

Peter Wynn Thompson

Shining City Goodman Theatre

When Shining City made its Broadway debut in 2006, its author, Irish playwright Conor McPherson, candidly discussed his painful journey toward sobriety after years of alcohol abuse—an addiction that nearly cost him his life in 2001, when at the age of 29 he was hospitalized with pancreatitis. "In going to therapists, I realized how many crazy people are in that job," McPherson told a New York Times writer. "To want to do a job like that, you have to be very attracted to dysfunction."

The same can be said of most playwrights. And McPherson is a very good playwright indeed. In Shining City—now receiving its beautifully acted Chicago premiere under the direction of Robert Falls, who also staged the New York production—McPherson fuses extraordinary skill at shaping language with an aching awareness of the difficulties of communicating. His characters are remarkably real, and the psychological and spiritual journeys they take are readily recognizable; McPherson has clearly invested himself in each of them.

Set in contemporary Dublin, the play focuses on two men, Ian and John (two versions of the same name). Ian, a thirtysomething ex-priest, has just traded in the confessor's booth for the counselor's couch and set up shop as a therapist. (Santo Loquasto's set, lit by Christopher Akerlind, evokes a dreary third-floor office in a dilapidated Victorian building; a high window provides a view of the Dublin skyline.) Like his old job, Ian's new one requires him to listen to people express their grief and guilt, only now he offers understanding rather than absolution. He never comes out and says it, but essentially he's chosen humanism over religion, science over superstition.

In light of that shift, it's ironic that Ian's first client, the 50ish John, is vexed by supernatural terrors: he thinks he's being haunted by the ghost of his dead wife. Both men find the idea absurd—surely the "ghost" is a figment of John's imagination, a projection of the torment he feels over his unhappy marriage and his sense of responsibility for his wife's death in a car accident. In a long, circuitous monologue midway through this 95-minute one-act, John unleashes an eloquent torrent of painful revelations. He and his wife were childless, the objects of their friends' condescending pity. The couple had long ago stopped communicating, and the gulf between them had widened when John pursued an extramarital affair and then visited a brothel—pathetic, futile attempts to find meaning in his existence.

Over several months of therapy, John's tragic history triggers changes in Ian. The sorrow John feels for his sad, barren marriage forces Ian to deal with his estrangement from his girlfriend, Neasa, and his inability to share responsibility for the child they have together. And John's admission that he patronized a prostitute seems to nudge Ian toward expressing his repressed homosexuality in an encounter with a hustler he picks up in a park.

As he distills naturalistic conversation into a stylized poetry of the stage, McPherson shifts between two modes of speech to delineate emotional and sociological differences between his characters. Sometimes he employs the terse, minimalist style made familiar by his countryman Samuel Beckett, peppered with profanity and punctuated with so-called "Pinter pauses." At other times he spins out monologues with long, arcing phrases reminiscent of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and August Wilson—and of Brian Friel's monologue plays Faith Healer and Molly Sweeney.

Such rich language demands actors of virtuosic skill, and Falls's cast fully meets the script's demands. Slim, boyish, balding Jay Whittaker is just right as the emotionally constipated Ian: his rigid, disciplined body language reflects a lifetime of Catholic-school training, then disintegrates into jerky panic when he embraces another man. As John, beefy John Judd takes the audience on an emotional roller-coaster ride, from gruff hilarity to animal rage, from self-centered petulance to tearful anguish. The richness of these two performances lies in the actors' willingness to be true to the characters' disturbing flaws as well as their humanity. Nicole Wiesner and Keith Gallagher are moving in the small but crucial supporting roles of Neasa and the rent boy.

McPherson—whose other plays have been presented here by theaters ranging from Steppenwolf to Famous Door and the Gift—has acknowledged onetime off-Loop wunderkind David Mamet as a major influence: he became interested in writing for the stage after reading Glengarry Glen Ross in college in Dublin. Like Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Shining City uses a series of seemingly disconnected scenes to chart the effect a garrulous older man's storytelling has on the quiet younger fellow observing him. As John lays to rest the belief that his wife is haunting him, Ian finds the courage to take charge of his life and connect with others—a huge step for a man who's spent a lifetime listening to other people's problems as a way of avoiding his own.

A spooky last-minute twist ends the play on an uncertain note. Judging from conversations after the performance, some will be pleasantly jolted by the closing scene while others will regard it as cheap theatrical trickery. I think the final moment is fully justified: it makes the hopeful climax of Shining City more believable, reminding us that emotional victories must be constantly defended.

Drunkenness isn't a factor in this play the way it is in much of McPherson's earlier work, including The Weir and Rum and Vodka. But the dynamics of isolation and self-recrimination that permeate Shining City surely reflect the playwright's insights as a recovering alcoholic. He shares what he knows all too well—you can never fully put your demons to rest, for they are always hovering, ready to drag you down from that shining city of the soul back into hell.    v

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