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Shine On

October 21, 2008

Conor McPherson's tricksy play Shining City takes a musty formula and gives it a twist -- or, to be more precise, a shoulder-dislocating wrench. But he does it so subtly that you don't notice the brutality.

The play is set in in modern day Dublin, but looks like it could have been written 70 years ago. It's an old fashioned psychological drama steeped in realism and coupled with a traditional bedtime ghost story. Both the ghost and psychological elements appear on the surface to follow the standard rules of their genres. But the play is so oddly structured -- it's rooted in a few very long, monologue-based scenes interspersed with what appear to be tangential "side show" scenes -- that it ends up defying the status quo. I, for one, had not read or seen the play before I attended Amy Glazer's pithy production at SF Playhouse, and enjoyed all of its eccentricities immensely, even feeling my stomach lurch in the final sickly moments of McPherson's tall tale.

The play is interesting because you think it's about one thing -- a middle-aged salesman's psychological breakdown following the death of his wife. But it ends up equally being about the inner lives of several other characters -- an ex-priest turned therapist, his girlfriend, and a young male prostitute.

What makes Glazer's production powerful is the way in which she works with the terrific cast to bring out the drama's profound meditation on human loneliness and isolation. Shining City is peopled with characters who cannot or are afraid to go home. They wander the streets, inhabit apartments where they're not wanted and pace up and down rented bedsits and apartments, not sure what to do next. Like the ghost that haunts the margins of the narrative, they are all in limbo.

McPherson has a slightly different sensibility to his renowned Irish playwright counterpart, Martin McDonagh. McDonagh's plays provide a series of nasty shocks; McPherson's make the fingertips tingle in a way that isn't entirely pleasurable but can't be stopped. And whereas many of McDonagh's plays (with the exception, perhaps, of Pillowman) feel like they couldn't be set anywhere other than Ireland, McDonagh's feel rootless, like the dramatist himself isn't quite sure where to lay his dramaturgical hat.


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