Review: `Shining City’

Oct 05

Opened Oct. 4, 2008, SF Playhouse

Paul Whitworth (left) is John, a grief-stricken widower, and Alex Moggridge is Ian, a fledgling therapist in the SF Playhouse production of Conor McPherson’s Shining City, a grand Irish ghost story. Photos by Zabrina Tipton

 

Ghosts go bump in McPherson’s luminous `Shining City’
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SF Playhouse opens its sixth season with a roaring good ghost story.

Even better, Shining City is an intelligent ghost story from the mind and pen of Conor McPherson, one of Ireland’s best contemporary playwrights, and it is directed by Amy Glazer, one of the Bay Area’s most insightful and reliable directors.

In any discussion of a ghost story, the less you know going into it, the better. But know this: Glazer gets deep inside McPherson’s story and finds sympathetic rhythms that lead to a series of surprises.

This is a first-class production with solid talent in front of and behind the footlights. SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English handled set design chores, and this is one of his best: an old brick office building in Dublin, the office of newly hatched therapist Ian, who has barely had time to unpack all the boxes before he sees his first patient.

The realistic office, which features a large central window looking out onto a bleak Dublin city scene dominated by a cathedral spire, reflects a realistic tone in McPherson’s play that is vital for the ghost story to gain some traction.

Alex Moggridge plays Ian, the therapist and Paul Whitworth, formerly the artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, is his primary patient, John.

Whitworth carries the weight of the play in terms of dialogue. Like many a McPherson play (The Weir, Dublin Carol), there are some heavy-duty monologues, and as a patient spilling his emotional soul to his therapist, it’s logical that he would do a lot of talking.

But what’s really interesting about Shining City is that McPherson, who tends to favor a good ghost story, is putting himself on the examination table and exploring just what it is about ghosts and the mere idea of ghosts that is so titillating and terrifying.

For Ian, the whole ghost thing is less about reality and more about our relationship with God – we want desperately to know there’s something more out there, and ghosts, in their spooky way, are proof of another dimension.

For John, ghosts are more about guilt – a sort of self-induced shock therapy that forces us to confront our truest and deepest emotions. Ghosts, in short, can be useful, and McPherson utilizes them in a sort of roundabout way toward redemption.

They can also bedevil the stage. It’s difficult – almost impossible, I’d say – to scare a live theater audience with a ghost story. You can chill us, maybe, but actually scare us? That’s a tall order.

But Shining City manages the trick quite handily. I won’t say where or when, but mixed in with the intelligent script, the beautifully nuanced performances and the intriguing plot twists, there’s a heckuva good scare.

Glazer follows McPherson’s lead and keeps the focus on the emotions of the story. Whitworth and Moggridge’s scenes together are masterful. It’s possible John’s lengthiest monologue could be trimmed, but it’s all about rhythm and the way important pieces of his story – an adulterous liaison followed by a ghastly tragedy – come trickling out.

Beth Wilmurt and Alex Conde shake things up in supporting roles that help us get to know Ian a little better, and then there’s the ghost, of course, who scares up some pretty intense emotions.

There’s not a theater better suited to this Irish ghost story than SF Playhouse, an intimate space that makes you feel like you’re up there on the therapist’s couch with John. Ensconced in the confines of that office, you relax into the conversation, but then you’re also trapped when it gets scary.

Remember, in a theater full of people, everyone can hear you scream.

Photo at right: Moggridge (left) undergoes a different kind of therapy with Alex Conde as Laurence. Photo by Zabrina Tipton.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Shining City continues through Nov. 22 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St. San Francisco. Tickets are $40. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information.

One comment

  1. Great review Chad. Being Irish (at least on my father’s side) I’m a sucker for Irish plays. I got a lot out of the play especially the character of Ian the ex priest and and counsellor. I idenify with his Irish guilt trip particulary when I was young.

    One interesting story. Director Amy Glazer told me that originally it was thought that during the long monologues of John which was played brilliantly by Paul Whitworth, the character would get up from the couch and walk about the room delivering these long speeches. It was determine that the best way was to have John just sit on the couch and do all of the long monologues. I am happy to say it worked. I believe if he was walking around it would have been more a “ham” performance.

    My review won’t be up for another week since New York allows me only three per week now.

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