The understanding that comes when one realizes that he or she alone possesses a unique individual consciousness can only benefit and help one confront their own demons. However, being surrounded by family, a spouse, and friends with whom one cannot experience resonant, profound communication because walls of guilt, turmoil, and anger stop it, results in a life of pain and misery. The individual then enters a state of depression and anxiety from which there appears to be no escape. It is then such individuals feel utterly alone in the world and consider whether or not their lives have purpose and meaning, as they question whether anyone cares if they live or die.
These are just a few of the conditions of the characters that Conor McPherson examines in his enigmatic, metaphysical play Shining City, currently enjoying its revival at Irish Repertory Theatre. This amazing production finely elucidated by director Ciarán O’Reilly stars Matthew Broderick as John in a memorable, gripping performance. His portrayal magnifies the range of his skill and depth as an actor; he is mesmerizing in a difficult role which he seamlessly conveys with his brilliant acting instrument. This is a sterling revival of McPherson’s work whose design elements (sets, staging, lighting, costumes, sound design and original music), excite McPherson’s vision of humanity and the story of two men’s parallel quest for substance, order and intention in their lives.
Through his characterizations of John and Ian (wonderfully portrayed by Billy Carter), exceptionally conveyed by the director and actors, McPherson transcends the realms of the natural world, making the otherworldly real and believable. He authenticates these other realms to indicate how spiritual/metaphysical forces may in fact spur us off the paralysis of soul destruction so that we may then strike out to uplift, regenerate and restore ourselves. Whether this spur is a coincidence of the mind, God, or the human psyche in extreme pain, the regeneration is only possible if the individuals reach a terrifying breaking point and then seek help.
John is at such a breaking point when he goes into therapy with Ian, a former priest and fledgling therapist whose crisis of faith has brought him to a crossroads: he has left his girlfriend and young baby to sort out who he is and what he wants from life. As the play progresses, and John has three sessions with Ian, and Ian has a confrontation with his girlfriend and a man he has picked up, we discover that both men run parallel lives which are similar in so many ways. They seek to connect, to find something amazing with someone else beyond the routine realities and drudgery of every day existence. Both search for something to enliven their lives rather than work on their failed relationships with their partners. As John finishes up the third session with Ian, we understand his purpose. He is looking for expiation and reconciliation with himself to confront the immense guilt he feels about his wife.
However, the initial reason John has sought therapy is because he is rattled to the core and he believes he may be mad. His wife stands behind the door of their bedroom in her red coat (a symbol of an incident in their past). She says nothing to him. Her appearance terrifies him because she died in a car accident months before; she was wearing the coat when she was killed. In her visitations she is real; she is alive. Rather than speak to her or take any other action (get an exorcist, if she is a ghost), John becomes even more paralyzed than he was in their relationship. The only thing he is able to act on is to leave work and stay at a B & B where he is convinced they think he is a wacko. John is at the breaking point with his wife’s visitations. Is she trying to tell him something or drive him mad and kill him?
The most heartfelt encounters in this revival of Shining City are between John and Ian as we learn why John is haunted by wife Mari. From an initial matter-of-fact, wary and surface discussion of events in his life, John eventually moves deeper into the emotional heart of what he has done to his wife in subsequent visits. He has committed an unforgivable and heartless unkindness. It upsets him to the depths of his soul as he tells Ian that he had abandoned his love for Mari and made her feel alone in the world. But in leaving her alone, he cut off a part of himself; he was not able to communicate with her or anyone else in a meaningful way. What he dreaded most came upon him; he is alone with his own searing, incriminating consciousness.
John employs the remembrance of his unkindness to Mari to flagellate himself. It was a grave injustice and Mari was undeserving of it as she was undeserving of the unfaithfulness he nearly exacted in his failed infidelities with two other women (one of their social class, another a prostitute). But his brutal action toward her that has broken his heart and convinced him that there is nothing redeemable in his being occurred when, in anger, he shook her and accused her of killing him. John expresses that she crawled into a ball and sobbed. We understand his terrible wrong of her, who in her own way, loved him and was trying to help him. John’s weeping signifies that he has broken through to his soul’s core and has admitted his reprehensible behavior that pounds in his being long after Mari is dead. Except…she is not, an interesting irony. But perhaps she is aware of his great remorse and is connecting to him in another realm. Perhaps, she will help him get to the next chapter in his life.
Broderick’s conversations with Ian grow into a crescendo of passion and feeling. He engages us with every ounce of his strength and we are enthralled in the reality of John’s/Broderick’s storytelling, with its humor, pathos, and poignance. We are able to envision the people, places and circumstances he discusses. Eventually, Broderick’s John has so won us over that we are shocked at his bestial actions toward Mari and recognize that our shock is nothing as compared to his horror at what he has done to her. He reveals his abuse was the more horrific because she was innocent. If he felt she was killing him, the feeling was caused by a fracture in the foundation of his psyche, not through some overt fault of hers. Broderick brings us to John’s emotional brink then takes us over into empathy as he weeps. These are healing tears and we understand that this is the expiation and confession to this former priest that will initiate his return to connecting with others in a resonant way. If he is alone in his consciousness, at least he can live with himself.
The play is a sequence of conversations and encounters: John’s therapy sessions with Ian, Ian’s confrontation with his girlfriend Neasa (a desperate and aching performance by Lisa Dwan), who begs him to come home, and Ian’s tryst with Laurence (James Russell in too brief a scene), who he has paid for intimacy. Each of the encounters impacts John, Laurence, and Neasa and the exchange with these individuals impacts Ian. However, the progression of change is subtle for Ian and more apparent for John. McPherson leaves a tremendous symbol and clue about Ian’s destiny at the play’s conclusion. As they part, Ian tells John that at one point he wondered about God. By the play’s end, he receives an affirmation that there is another realm that cannot be confined or defined by the empirical world. It intimates a “shining city” emanating spiritual light on a hill (Ezekiel’s prophetic vision-a Biblical allusion), in a form that is far from “shining.” McPherson’s conclusion is deliciously enigmatic; the inference is that Ian is about to embark on a journey in the things of the Spirit that will change his life, perhaps for the better.
This production of Shining City by Irish Repertory Theatre is running until July 3rd. It is a must see.