Life is about many things, loss being one of the most constant and certainly the most traumatic. We lose parents, though usually not when we are children. I lost my mother when I was 9 years old. More than a half-century later, I wonder how that has shaped me—or perhaps mis-shaped me—as an adult.
Conor McPherson has got me thinking about that. In his play “Shining City,” now through Oct. 28 at Hudson Stage in Armonk, the celebrated Irish dramatist tells us, through Ian (Hamish Allan-Headley), an improbable priest-turned-therapist, “something that can happen as a child [can] cause us to get stuck as an adult.”
Ian says that to Laurence (Michael Jennings Mahoney), a male prostitute he has solicited in a Dublin park. It turns out Laurence is married with a young son, age 6. He tells Ian that many of his clients are also fathers. The notion that reality often is far removed from what we assume it to be is a theme that courses throughout the play, which also considers deeply how the mind deals with grief, guilt and ghosts. “The mind, it’s mad, isn’t it?” muses one character.
What Mr. McPherson really is doing is sharing with the audience his—and our—befuddlement about life, both the big picture and the tiny pixels that comprise our ordinary existence, as we search, usually in vain, for the extraordinary.
Before Ian and Laurence hook up, we witness Ian having a cat-and-mouse quarrel with his girlfriend Neasa (Gemma Baird), who recently gave birth to their daughter. He tells her that while he’s committed to “looking after” her and their daughter, he no longer wants to live with her.
Here’s a guy who lurches from church counselor to couch counselor, and from apparent heterosexual to whateversexual. Confused? Yes, he is.
Ian clearly is stuck. After seeing the play, I was intrigued thinking what might have happened in his own—or, namely, in Conor McPherson’s—childhood that renders him so indecisive. It brought to mind these lyrics in Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind,” from the musical “Follies”: “Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor, not going left, not going right.”
While Neasa and Laurence represent divergent paths Ian can take sexually and socially—his fork in the road—the piece’s centerpiece is John (Derry Woodhouse).
When we meet John, a new patient of Ian’s, we learn his wife has perished in a freak auto accident, but her apparition is haunting him and their house, which he abandons out of fright. That ghost is his grief incarnate (so to speak). It arguably not only helps John solve his personal puzzle more than Ian helps him, but, as the play ends, we are led to believe Ian himself is about to be treated to some unexpected, ghostly therapy.
Laurence may be there to momentarily service Ian in one way, but, metaphorically, it is John who services Ian in a much more spiritual, meaningful way. On the surface, Ian is John’s therapist. Beneath the surface, it’s John who, in the end, helps Ian see the light (literally, in the form of a lamp John gives to him as a parting gift). The two men clearly are kindred spirits not in name only (i.e., Ian is Gaelic for John), with some stark differences: Ian keeps running away from things, and John keeps running into things.
The entire cast is up to the formidable task of meeting the high standard set by the writer of emotional shading and voluptuous phrasing that easily could ring false when interpreted by lesser actors. They are lucky, too, to be directed by the estimable Dan Foster, who brings a steady and savvy hand to all his work.
As is always the case with Hudson Stage Company shows—executive produced by Mr. Foster, Denise Bessette and Olivia Sklar—the set design is smart and sophisticated. I appreciated the skyline view we had through a window, with lighting effects that reflected time of day and to season, with snowflakes aflutter.
One of the fascinations of “Shining City” and of the playwright’s abundant verbal gifts is the language embodied in Ian and John. The former is mostly reticent, with little to say, while the latter speaks volubly in the idiom of the streets of Dublin, as he regales Ian with picturesque stories about his battles with—and doubts about—reality.
Mr. McPherson’s voice throughout “Shining City” is entrancing and evocative, both in theme and cadence. As if underscoring the inarticulateness of everyday existence, the writer has both Ian and John speaking in wholly incomplete sentences, punctuated often as not at the end of them by the ubiquitous “you know.” It’s as if Conor McPherson is telling us that what isn’t said can be as fraught with meaning as what is said.
Whatever he is telling us, this is a remarkable theater craftsman well worth listening to.
Tickets for “Shining City” at Hudson Stage are available through Brown Paper Tickets at 800-838-3006.
Bruce Apar of APAR PR provides “Publicity with Personality” for local businesses, organizations, and events. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce the Blog on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-275-6887.