In 'Shining City,' Haunted Souls

Donald Carrier and Laoisa Sexton in
Donald Carrier and Laoisa Sexton in "Shining City," a modern ghost story by Irish playwright Conor McPherson at Studio Theatre. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Leave it to a playwright as subtle and perceptive as Conor McPherson to give us a play as troubling and mysterious as life itself.

The premise of "Shining City" is deceptively simple: A distraught Dublin man of middle age, played by the terrific Edward Gero, seeks the help of a therapist (an appealingly ill-at-ease Donald Carrier) after his wife, Mari, has been killed in a car accident. Her death has been haunting him in more ways than one, however, for as Gero's John anxiously reveals, Mari's ghost has been popping up around the house and scaring him to pieces.

What transpires between John and Carrier's Ian in the confines of Ian's rather scruffy office traverses some of the usual patient-doctor give-and-take. John talks (and talks and talks), discursively filling in the outlines of his tribulations.

But over the course of 90 minutes, we discover that John's monologues offer more than professional grist for Ian, who shows himself as inexperienced in navigating the turbulent channels of his own life as he is in his attempts to smooth over John's.

Studio Theatre's spellbinding production, directed with a fine eye and ear by Joy Zinoman, draws us ever more compellingly into the psyches of Ian and John, who could not be more different in temperament: John is a gabby salesman, Ian a taciturn ex-priest. And yet, a powerful connection is forged in the emotional chaos both men are experiencing. For as John unburdens himself, Ian, unconsciously or otherwise, takes in John's stories as if they provided a map out of his own state of confusion.

Interspersed, then, among the sessions between John and Ian are the scenes of Ian's office encounters with his girlfriend, Neasa (Laoisa Sexton), and another sort-of acquaintance, Laurence (Chris Genebach). In a poignant and even pathetic way, Ian's behavior in each of these exchanges recalls and perhaps mirrors something he has picked up in his conversations with John. (It is only after John's account of a trip to a brothel, for instance, that Ian considers that kind of expansion of his own world of sexual possibility.)

McPherson keeps us guessing where, exactly, John's growing confidence in Ian is taking both of them. In the interim, the playwright hints at other subliminal connections between the men, such as the transient natures of their living arrangements: John, fearful of spending nights in a haunted house, moves to a bed-and-breakfast; Ian's office doubles as his bedroom, while his fiancee sleeps in his brother's house. "Shining City" equates the profound disturbances in one's emotional well-being with those of the place one calls home.

The play treats psychotherapy as both a means of catharsis and the butt of a joke. (There is something amusingly redundant in the idea of a profession coaxing people to talk in a culture renowned for storytelling.) We're not clear on how much of a pro Ian really is meant to be; as the desperate Neasa, played by the ideally cast Sexton, reminds Ian, she supported him when he went through his school "course" to become a therapist. And John ends up in Ian's office only because the therapist he had tried to see was overbooked.

The lanky Carrier grandly conveys Ian's groping efforts at asserting himself in his work and personal lives. In the slightly extended transitions between the scenes, we're provided glimpses through the darkness of Ian attending to household chores, as the music of Neil Young and Gene Clark plays on the stereo. Intended to express the idea of time passing, these moments also isolate for us the loneliness of Ian's struggle to assemble the puzzle pieces of his life into some coherent whole.

Gero provides the satisfying counterpoint: His is the canny portrait of a man who has stewed half a lifetime in frustration and regret. Like the other characters, Gero's John stutters out McPherson's finely crafted conversations of half-thoughts, the sort peppered with "you knows" and unfinished sentences that sound precisely the way people really do when they at once attempt to hide and reveal themselves.

His performance is never more powerful than during the long story he tells about John's awkwardly amorous adventure with a woman he'd met at a party, an event that culminates with his recounting of a sad, borderline violent confrontation back at home with the uncomprehending Mari. Sitting on Ian's couch, John projects a glad-handing affability that masks something darker and angrier. Gero is just the actor to make us believe it.

Set designer Russell Metheny conceives of Ian's office as the kind of drab space that five minutes after departing, you don't quite remember. With the aid of Zinoman and company, though, McPherson makes it one you won't soon forget.

Shining City, by Conor McPherson. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Lighting, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Helen Q. Huang; sound, Gil Thompson; dialect coach, Elizabeth van den Berg. About 90 minutes. Through Dec. 16 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit

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