Shining City, the new play opening next Tuesday at the Arts Court, promises to be something special. Written by the acclaimed young Irish playwright Conor McPherson, previous productions in New York, Los Angeles, and London have already impressed critics and audiences. The Broadway version was nominated for two Tony Awards in 2006, and the New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it "quiet, haunting, and absolutely glorious," with a "shocking" conclusion. Charles Spencer, reviewing Shining City for the Telegraph, labelled McPherson "the finest dramatist of his generation."
Photo: Alan Dean Photography
How will this play, so well received elsewhere, do in Ottawa? A promising sign is that the man directing it, John P. Kelly, is, like McPherson, as Irish as a misty drizzle. Kelly moved to Ottawa in 2004 after several decades of work as a director and producer in Ireland in theatre, radio, and with the Irish public broadcaster RTE.
Kelly is a man well acquainted with the unique rhythms of Irish speech and thought. This is obvious when, in conversation, he gives an analysis of the numerous possible inflections of the word "fuck" in Irish diction. ("It can be a noun, an adjective, or an adverb, depending on where the stress is," he says, before providing a couple of examples.)
When asked why he selected this play, he says, "What first appealed to me is the psychological, almost thriller drama of it. At first, when I heard about it, that it's a ghost story, I thought, you know, it isn't really a ghost story. But then when I read it, I realized, my God, it is really a ghost story - and it started to scare me! And not in a juvenile way, but in a serious way. He's dealing with really serious issues."
Shining City is primarily the story of Ian, a Catholic priest turned therapist, and his interactions with one of his clients, John, who has consulted Ian after believing he has seen the ghost of his wife. Apart from Ian and John, there are only two other characters in the play. The actors are four experienced and well-respected locals: Richard Gélinas, Tom Charlebois, Nancy Kenny, and Garrett Quirk.
This will be the 14th play Kelly has directed since arriving in Ottawa, and it's clear that he is particularly excited to be putting on this production. "McPherson is a wonderful, wonderful writer," he says. "When you read the play, you think, this can't possibly be written by a guy who is 33 - but it is." Shining City contains a wealth of human emotion, tragedy, and comedy: "McPherson is able to write about grief, and put humour into it as well."
Shining City contains a wealth of human emotion, tragedy, and comedy. Considering the breadth and depth of emotion transmitted by the characters, and the lengthy monologues characteristic of McPherson's work, it's no surprise that Kelly lists the acting challenges as one of the main potential stumbling blocks in presenting Shining City. Also, he notes, the plotting of such a tightly-wound story is immensely tricky: "I just finished doing Noises Off, which a lot of people would consider one of the hardest challenges in theater - but in my opinion, this one is harder. It's like a jigsaw puzzle with a thousand pieces all moving together. The joy is that every day you learn something new, but then every day you also have less time to fit everything together."
Richard Gélinas, playing Ian, agrees that it is crucial to wind up the audience in preparation for the surprise ending: "If it's not built up to properly, then it doesn't fit; so we have to make sure to keep the train somewhat on the rails." This building of tension is all the more difficult in a story that depends so much on a small number of characters, in which so much depends simply on words and charged silence.
But through the drama, the humour, and the eeriness, Gélinas hopes that audiences will take away what he hopes "audiences are struck by every time they see a play -- the commonality, the threads that connect people to each other."
And, on a cold, dark, late-fall evening, in a city where the winters can be long and bleak - there are not many more appealing ways to spend an evening than being reminded of things that bind us together.
Shining City will play at the Arts Court Theatre, 2 Daly Avenue, from November 17 to 28, 2009. Further information on tickets is available at www.seventhirty.ca, or by calling the box office at 613-564-7240.