A Review

Wrestling Demons

By R. J. Donovan

The Huntington Theatre Company has joined with Chicago's Goodman Theatre to co-present the local premiere of Conor McPherson's Irish ghost tale, "Shining City." 

The play is set in Dublin, and the premise is simple.  A distraught man who has recently lost his wife in a grisly accident is now seeing her image in their home.  He seeks the help of a local therapist who, he admits, was not his first choice for the job.  The "good" doctor he would have preferred was booked weeks in advance. So he winds up in the office of Ian, an ex-priest who has just hung out his shingle as a psychologist. 

Is he really seeing the dead woman? Or is this a byproduct of guilt, both at his straying from his marriage and his inability to connect with his wife in the first place.

The doctor is in no better shape himself.  He's had a child with a woman he now wants to leave.  His sexuality is also thrown in question when he picks up a street hustler.

McPherson takes his time in letting the story unfold -- to the extent that the slice of life drama soon sets you wondering what the point is.  But as in much of Irish storytelling, the brilliance is in the details.  And details it has.  John, the man who's seeing the apparition, is, at first, almost unable to share his story.  His terror is more than evident as he sputters out the fragmented beginnings of the tale.  The more he shares, the more he loosens up, admitting his mistakes. He's also desperate that someone believes what's happening to him.

Ian, on the other hand, barely speaks. His bedside manner is slim. One can only wonder how comforting he was as a priest. It's only after the final curtain that you realize how alike the two very different men are and how the elements of their lives can be seen as misty mirror images of one another.

The spark of the night is the sucker punch you receive at the final black out (which, to be honest, takes a while to arrive).  However, I'm not one to spoil the ending of anything.  So suffice it to say that the play reminds me of one of those wonderful old black and white "Twilight Zone" episodes that told a story that was deceptively innocent.  Until the final moment. And then the cold water went rushing down your spine

So is the final punch merely a trick or a really satisfying jolt?  The answer may differ depending upon whom you ask.

What can't be argued is that the show is anchored with a thoroughly believable and beautifully realized performance by John Judd as the man haunted.  He's often quite riveting as he struggles to find the right words to express himself.  When his white-knuckled hands grip the arms of the therapist's couch, he's like a man in the front car of a roller coaster, bracing himself for what he knows is about to come.

Jay Whittaker plays Ian, and while his performance is the exact opposite of Judd, he builds a credible portrait of the uneasy, man-of-few-words therapist who has difficulty communicating.

Rounding out the cast are Nicole Wiesner as Ian's girlfriend and Keith Gallagher as the hustler.

The shadowy office Ian occupies (and lives in) has been designed by Santo Loquasto. In a nice touch, Dublin rooftops can be seen from the enormous picture window as a stormy sky looms in the distance. 

The author of such plays as "The Weir," "The Seafarer" and "Dublin Carol," McPherson ranks as one of Ireland's premiere storytellers.  His rich talents are evident not only in the vivid speeches he creates but in the staccato way he has his characters dole them out.

"Shining City" is directed by the Goodman's Robert Falls, who also directed the  2006 Broadway production (nominated for a Best Play Tony Award).

"Shining City " is at The Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston, through April 6. For information, call 617-266-0800.

Production Photo: Peter Wynn Thompson

-- OnStage Boston




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