Like Ian, the ex-priest protagonist in Conor McPherson’s Shining City, the Irish playwright claims to have renounced the strict Roman Catholic faith of his youth. Yet Shining City, as seen in ion theatre’s unflinching new production that opened Saturday (Sept. 7), is an extended parable of redemption told as a string of excruciating confessional confrontations.
For nearly two hours without intermission, Shining City expounds topics that clot catechetical instruction and propel guilt-inducing sermons—betrayal, adultery, prevarication, deceit, and assault, to name those sins that come immediately to mind.
When Ian left the Church, he exchanged the Catholic confessional booth for its secular equivalent, the psychologist’s office, as his new trade. Even when Francis Gercke, aptly cast as the hapless Ian, is listening to a client unravel his problems, Gercke artfully compromises every ounce of empathy he metes out with a dose of embarassed apprehension that makes the audience wonder why Claudio Raygoza’s John opens up so volubly to his assigned counselor.
Raygoza doggedly unburdens John’s guilt concerning his various infidelities to his late wife, who was killed in a car accident
and has recently unnerved him with ghostly nocturnal apparitions. Before experiencing these ghostly reprimands, John might have passed for a less foul-mouthed member of David Mamet’s Glengary Glen Ross wheeler-dealer fraternity, but Raygoza takes us on a remarkable journey of recovery, incrementally restoring John’s self-confidence as well as a portion of his moral equilibrium. McPherson makes the audience wonder how Ian’s feeble bromides actually aid John’s recovery, but the playwright’s childhood catechists would no doubt counsel us simply to take that on faith. Gercke does manage to project a modicum of patient attention during John’s copiously detailed confessions, so perhaps the counselor as sympathetic ear is the key to John’s recovery.
But as John’s condition improves, Ian’s precarious life continues to deteriorate. Early in the play, from a painful encounter with his girlfriend Neasa we learn that Ian intends to break up with this kind young woman who has not only given birth to his child, but who worked two jobs to finance his coursework to qualify him as a counselor after he left his priestly vocation. Jessica John plays all the notes of Neasa’s emotional arabesque with finesse, moving from gritty hope to crestfallen pride to a humiliated admission of the fleeting affair she engaged in while Ian was taking his courses.
As a further sign of Ian’s moral confusion, he picks up a male hustler in a park one night and brings him back to his counseling office for a tryst. Zack Bonin plays the taciturn stud who turns out to be another unmarried dad with a youngster whom he attempts to support with his feckless work. Bonin appears unusually gentle for rough trade, but McPherson has fallen back on a handy stereotype, the hooker with a heart of gold, so Bonin’s options were circumscribed by the author.[php snippet=1]
Director Glenn Paris has ratcheted up the drama’s emotional tension to a deliriously high level, although the pace of Raygoza’s rambling confessions could be sped up to maintain that febrile state that makes McPhersons’s play so appealing. For once, ion’s tiny Blk Box stage seems just the right size for the Ian’s pathetic little office, although Raygoza’s scenic design is a bit too upscale and minimalist—a flamboyant interior designer’s notion of shabby. Ron Logan’s Dublin cityscape hazily depicted behind a large window at the rear of the set provides welcome relief from the McPherson’s claustrophobic dramatic framework.
Jessica John’s almost natty sweaters and heavy jackets connote Dublin’s chilly and dreary weather, as does Karin Filijan’s subdued lighting scheme. Her apparitions proved suitably creepy. James Dirks’ deft, eclectic sound design includes a touch of film noir suspense, sacred choral music as a symbol of Ian’s past, and appropriate (i.e. dated) pop music for the gay tryst.
Since I first saw Shining City in San Francisco several seasons back, I have pondered over the title. In the dialogue of the play, no one ever refers to the city of Dublin as illustrious, either in a literal or ironic fashion. So I doubt that Dublin is the shining city. Turning to McPherson’s Catholic schooling, I think of the passage in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew) where he compares the Kingdom of God to a city set high on a hill in which the inhabitants’ charity and good works light up the world. In McPherson’s Shining City, the charity is modest at best, and good works are overshadowed by deceit. At one point, John flippantly asks Ian, “Yeah, where is God, anyway,” in a tone of voice that suggests God is just a no-show at yesterday’s office party.
In this shining city, everyone’s light is dim. But there is nothing dim about ion’s radiant production.