What happens when guilt becomes tangible? Can it appear as a ghost - spooking a person into an emotional breakdown? That is the subtext to Shining City, Conor McPherson’s wonderfully disturbing drama being given its Boston premiere by the Huntington Theatre Company after successful runs in London and New York. (This production, under the direction of Robert Falls, is a transfer from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where Falls is the artistic director.)
The spooked victim is John (John Judd,) a middle-aged Dubliner mourning the death of his wife who died in a swift, horrifying manner in an automobile accident. Not that the marriage was a particularly happy one--they barely spoke at the time of their death, co-existing in their large home in an unhappy truce. Months after her death, John believes he sees her--standing in the door so real that he’s dumbstruck with terror. She’s trying to tell him something, but he flees the house before she can complete a sentence, taking up residency in a nearby bed and breakfast, and quickly goes to pieces.
This leads him to the rundown office of Ian (Jay Whittaker,) a fledgling therapist, who is the midst of an emotional crisis of his own. An ex-priest who has left his ministry, he now wants to move on from a relationship with Neasa (Nicole Wiesner,) the woman he had planned to marry and had a child by. Ian has gone AWOL, hiding out in his office away from his troubled domestic arrangement the couple is enduring living uncomfortably with Ian’s brother and wife. As they argue she reveals she hasn’t been faithful, largely due to his remoteness. What may be causing his distance is touched upon in a subsequent scene, in which Ian confronts his conflicted desires with Laurence (Keith Gallagher,) a homeless hustler he meets in a park.
"Shining City" is about many things--loneliness, guilt, desire and the place where the psychological and supernatural connect--and does so with economy and the poetic sensibility of a born storyteller. McPherson’s has shown this gift in his previous work--most specifically the macabre, engrossing one-person play "St. Nicholas" and his series of interlocking monologues "The Weir," but here he extends his talent, moving beyond simply telling tales to creating a fully realized drama. His thrust follows John’s return to sanity, largely through his interactions with Ian--but there’s more here than what appears on the surface. What’s up with Ian? And what’s up with the play’s final moment? Believe me, it’s the type of theatrical shock effect that will haunt you for days and all but turn what comes before on its end.
That he pulls that moment off so brilliantly is part of what makes "Shining City" such a memorable experience. That and the quiet intensity that director Robert Falls brings to the taut conversations that comprise the play’s 90-minute span. He measures the interactions between John and Ian with care, bringing the audiences into their intimate conversations. And the play’s more confrontational moments - a scalding argument between Ian and Neasa and Ian’s late night encounter with Laurence, the man he meets in a park - are carefully balanced into the whole. It would be difficult to find fault with its two leads - John Judd physicalizes John’s anxiety perfectly. His stress is palpable as he slowly reveals his backstory to Ian in his therapy sessions, breaking down as he is overcome with guilt. Jay Whittaker’s Ian pivots between his professional demeanor and his private torment, and does so with a wonderfully off-kilter believability. Nicole Wiesner strikingly conveys Neasa’s anger and guilt, while Keith Gallagher portrays the loneliness of the troubled pick-up with a beautiful sense of resignation. What certainly adds to the play’s ghostly air is Santo Loquasto’s rendering of an airy, if shabby Dublin office, which itself seems haunted by its former tenants; and Christopher Akerlind’s shadowy lighting that underscores the play’s darker themes.
McPherson came to write this play after a near-death experience in 2001. (He was in a coma for three weeks after collapsing at the London premiere of one of his plays.) A heavy drinker at the time, he joined a program and became sober. "Getting sick was a terrible thing, but in a funny way it had to happen," he told the New York Times prior to the play’s New York premiere. "It set me free and gave me a second chance." It was his interaction with therapists during his recovery that led him to create Ian ("In going to therapists, I realized how many crazy people are in that job. To want to do a job like that you have to be very attracted to dysfunction.") And his love of the supernatural to couch the play as a ghost story - the result is certainly gripping and beautifully realized. It’s title may be oblique (is it meant to refer to the "shining city on the hill?," the phrase that Ronald Reagan used in his farewell speech?); no matter - McPherson’s haunting drama more than makes up for this confusion.