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Aristotle wrote that the course of the tragic action in a play should saturate the spectator with feelings of compassion and drive out petty personal emotions, thus infusing the soul with "pity" (compassion for the sufferer) and "terror" (identification with the sufferer). Shining City, Theatre Exile's last production of the season, wouldn't fit any usual definition of tragedy: Neither character is heroic in any sense of the word, and there is no action to speak of. Nonetheless, the words "pity" and "terror" usefully describe the feelings the plight of the two main characters engender in an audience.
Theatre Exile has made a brave choice in selecting Conor McPherson's haunting play. Eschewing lavish sets, over-the-top sword play, histrionic plot devices and visual pyrotechnics, the company chose instead to offer a small, intensely involving, disquieting and thought-provoking story about two lonely men, a former priest turned "therapist" (Ian, played by William Zielinski) and his first patient (John, played by Scott Greer), a man trying to pull himself together after the death of his wife, a woman he had betrayed and abused and who now haunts him, literally.
Both men are inarticulate, bewildered and frightened. Their conversations ramble, alternating between self-pity and self-revelation. Phrases like "I mean," "Y'know," and "Y'know what I mean?" (the bane of so many conversations among today's youth), are interjected more frequently than "fuck" or "fuck you" in a David Mamet play. That this play communicates powerfully despite the clumsiness of the dialogue is a measure of McPherson's talent as a playwright, Matt Pfeiffer's deft touch as a director and this cast's acting skills.
Look in the mirror
Both Scott Greer and William Zielinski give bravura performances, but Greer, who has the much larger and more difficult role as the patient, is truly wonderful. As John tells his story, we vacillate between wanting to wring his neck and a desire to console him.
We do feel pity for John, who needs our compassion. But at the same time we are forced to ask ourselves: Could this be me? Have I harbored these feelings, these fears, these doubts?
John isn't merely inarticulate; he's bumbling, insensitive, supremely selfish and angry. Surely I have none of those problems! But this play is so well performed that only someone not really paying attention or not really willing to be self-reflective, at least a little, can leave the theater without feeling a bit of terror.
This, despite the assurances that John and Ian give each other at play's end. Each is leaving Dublin to start a new life; each insists that he is doing well; each mouths platitudes about not dwelling on the past but moving forward. But we know that this is an exercise in whistling past the graveyard.
Dread in the audience
Both John's and Ian's inarticulateness is rooted in their lacking a core self (in Ian's case, he is not even sure of his sexual identity). Too many ghosts still linger for us to believe that their lives will be better. But it is John's and Ian's all-too-humanness that sends us into the night with a sense of dread.
In a time when audiences tend to like plenty of flash and action (having, we suspect, been corrupted by TV and the movies), Shining City comes as a reminder that sometimes (as Estragon says in Godot) "nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful." And that's why you should see this play.♦
To read a response, click here.
To read another review by Jim Rutter, click here.
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read another review by SaraKay Smullens, click here.
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