Theater Review

'Shining City' Thrown Off Balance

By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Elden Street Players have taken an unusual approach to "Shining City," Irish playwright Conor McPherson's drama (with laughs) of two contemporary Dubliners locked in lives of isolation and displacement. Director Angie Anderson has radically transformed one of them, turning a befuddled and tentative therapist into a bellowing fool. It's a bold move, but one that undermines McPherson's enjoyable tale.

John (Michael Kharfen) is a grieving, middle-aged widower who seeks the help of therapist Ian (Todd Huse) after he begins seeing his wife's ghost. There's more to John's anguish than the loss of his wife, however. And Ian has specters of his own as he begins a new career as a therapist after leaving the priesthood. Soon, odd parallels in their lives manifest, and it becomes obvious there is more than one kind of haunting at work.

The Herndon troupe has enjoyed success with McPherson before, staging a thoroughly engaging production of "The Weir." The 37-year-old playwright honors traditional Irish storytelling but does so with fragmented, often staccato dialogue reminiscent of David Mamet. Spun with an Irish lilt, his tales often conjure ghosts. This play, his first since a stint in rehab for alcoholism, is no exception. His interaction with mental health professionals seems to have left him feeling that they need as much help as their patients.

Some of McPherson's fans find his work bracing, but others decry his murky plots. I'm a fan who finds his plots murky but doesn't think it matters much. Here, it matters more than usual because the manner in which the therapist is presented throws off the subtle balance of McPherson's themes.

The story unfolds in a series of five scenes that resemble duets, each featuring Huse and one other cast member. Kharfen is electrifying as John, spilling tales of infatuation, panic, remorse, anger and guilt on the therapist's couch.

He is vivid each time he appears, but never more so than in a dynamic scene in which he commands attention for maybe half an hour. Kharfen shows us a man haunted by his wife's ghost and his spiritual isolation. He skillfully alternates between a jittery emotional fragility and a relaxed joy of storytelling as he bites off McPherson's cadenced, sometimes oblique language. In his hands, John is an emotionally raw but congenial character.

Huse fritters away our compassion for Ian, as he spends much of the 90-minute (without intermission) play bellowing his lines and scowling, a marked departure from what is usually a hesitant, unsettled and sympathetic figure. Shouting in a thick Dublin brogue also compromises Huse's diction, turning some lines into unintelligible slush. More significant, though, is that the belligerence of the performance weakens the relationship between therapist and patient and adds an unwanted layer of artificial theatricality. It also drains any empathy we might feel for the character, especially in a scene with Neasa (Susan Talbott), the girlfriend Ian has abandoned along with their baby.

Talbott creates a vivid portrayal of a bewildered, emotionally devastated woman, but we wonder what she sees in the cad, because Huse doesn't let us see his character's inner struggle.

Ian Brown is convincing as Laurence, a young homeless man encountered by Ian, who is seeking to quiet the restless spirits bedeviling him. Laurence obviously has his own personal crises, but Brown's low-key, unsentimental approach seems to help Huse recalibrate his work. As he settles down, we begin to get a look at the man behind the bluster. It seems that Ian has to find himself before he can relate to others.

Generally, though, Anderson succeeds in getting her cast to negotiate McPherson's naturalistic dialogue, with its overlapping talk and sentences that sometimes peter out in self-conscious confusion. It's a challenge, but it creates a healthy dose of realism that propels the play. That realism also makes the surprise of a cheap but extremely effective trick McPherson plays on the audience quite delightful.

"Shining City" continues through Feb. 14, performed by the Elden Street Players at Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon. Showtime Fridays and Saturdays is 8 p.m. Performances are also scheduled for Sunday at 7 p.m. and next Thursday at 8 p.m. For reservations and information, call 703-481-5930 or visit

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