"Every life is many days, day after day,” James Joyce wrote. “We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves."
In other words, every person we meet and talk to gives us an opportunity to see ourselves afresh, through the eyes of others -- to take the measure of ourselves, and to note our own strengths and weaknesses -- physically, intellectually, and, most importantly, emotionally and morally.
Joyce’s quotation could have been the inspiration for Conor McPherson’s Shining City, which is currently being performed in Ottawa by the SevenThirty production company, at the Arts Court Theatre from November 17th to 28th.The charac- ters are realistic, the problems are relatable, and the plot, driven by words rather than actions, rolls forward at a stirring pace.
McPherson is a young Irish playwright -- born in 1971 -- rapidly gaining recognition in Ireland, Britain, and North America for a string of acclaimed plays and screenplays. Shining City has been performed in London, New York, and Los Angeles, among other locales, and its Broadway production was nominated for two Tony Awards in 2006. The theatre critic for the London Telegraph, reviewing the London version of the play, hailed McPherson as “the greatest playwright of his generation.”
Seeing this Ottawa version, it is easy to see why McPherson's star has risen so rapidly. The characters and their speeches are realistic, the problems presented in the story are relatable to most people’s everday lives, and the plot, though driven almost entirely by words rather than actions, rolls forward at a stirring pace.
Shining City is a series of six scenes, each one presenting a dialogue between two of the four characters in the play. The story grips the audience’s attention for the same reason that modern-day talk shows attract millions of viewers: it's captivating to see people spill their deepest secrets in public. And, in this instance, the acting is much better, and the characters much more sympathetic than on the average talk show.
The two main characters are Ian, a former Catholic priest turned therapist, and one of his clients, John, a middle-aged businessman who has come to Ian because he is haunted -- literally, it seems -- by the ghost of his recently deceased wife, Mari. All the scenes take place in Ian’s office in Dublin.
The conversations between these two -- as well as the two other characters, Neasa, Ian’s girlfriend and the mother of his child, and Laurence, another young man encountered by Ian -- are marked by hesitations, interruptions, repetitions, and sudden outbursts set off by depth charges of emotion. (All of these problems in communication are further emphasized by Ian’s inability to figure out what's wrong with the buzzer in his building.)
Each of the four characters is wounded in one way or another. Laurence nurses a bandaged hand. Neasa, in her one scene, struggles with an awkward limp, and then suffers the trauma of Ian, in the throes of his own emotional uncertainty, breaking up with her. John is an emotional wreck, weeping and swivelling from one corner of the stage to the other -- literally, he doesn't know where to turn -- and rarely making eye contact with Ian. And Ian himself, even apart from his turbulent encounter with Neasa, reveals gaping vulnerabilities of his own.
John P. Kelly's version of Shining City is a finely-wrought and highly engaging affair.
Played by the stocky, sweatered, heavily browed Richard Gélinas, Ian is a therapist who is himself searching for answers, having lost the religious faith that first led him to become a priest. (The absence of God, and the consequent lack of that moral structure that religion provided for so many centuries in Western society, is a strong theme throughout the play.)
The dialogue scenes are interspersed with brief interludes, in which Ian is shown silently asleep in his office -- with his head laid down on his desk, or curled up in a sleeping bag on the floor, with the pale light of the streetlamp outside shining softly but starkly through the curtainless window, heightening the sense of solitude.
These are four people with nowhere else to turn to, either physically or emotionally. John says to Ian, “I’m on my own an awful lot.” Neasa says to Ian, “I’m completely on my own.” Ian says to Neasa, “I can’t do this anymore.” Neasa says to Ian, “I didn’t have anyone I could have a normal talk with; I had no one.” It is, in other words, the story of the typical inhabitant of the late-20th or early-21st century metropolis -- trying to make his or her way through life without the traditional guiding lights of the all-embracing, cradle-to-grave stability of family, community, or religion. The freedom can be invigorating but, at the same time, the loneliness can gnaw at your soul.
This particular version of Shining City, under the steady, experienced direction of John P. Kelly, himself an Irishman, is a finely-wrought and highly engaging affair. The four actors -- all experienced thespians from the Ottawa and eastern Canada circuit -- transmit a broad range of emotions, laced with humour, with a delicate intimacy of speech and non-verbal communication to the audience in the small theatre.
The lighting and the setting, also, are artfully arranged in order to focus the audience’s attention on one particular character as he tells his story, and to show the progression of time -- day into night, day after day, sunrise after sunset.
The only anxiety arose just when the play started, and it turned out that these Canadian actors would be speaking in Irish accents -- potentially one of the most dangerous things to attempt in drama. However, Tom Charlebois, the actor playing John, with the most monologues, pulled his accent off perfectly. Tom Charlebois gives a perfectly tuned, impassioned, but understated performance worth the price of admission.
I’m no expert in Irish accents, but I’ve seen my share of Father Ted and movies based on Roddy Doyle novels, and it seemed to me that Richard Gélinas, playing Ian, sometimes had just a little bit too much “oi” going on (“foight”; “oisland”); and Nancy Kenny, in the role of Neasa, had her accent slip a couple of times. These were minor quibbles, however, and never provided more than a moment’s distraction from the story.
Besides the emotional impact of the plot, the most important reason to see this play is the performance of Charlebois. He gives a perfectly tuned, impassioned, but understated performance as the discombobulated, trying-to-keep-things together John -- a man who has lived most of his life firmly in the rut of his middle-of-the-road social status, job, and childless marriage; and, just as he was beginning to chafe at the constraints -- he mentions repeatedly to Ian that he and Mari “weren’t really communicating” the last few years -- had the rug pulled out from under him by Mari's violent death.
Charlebois’s immaculately pitched performance is worth the price of admission in itself. Gélinas, having to play both the calm, rational therapist to John, and the victim of his own emotional turmoil, has, perhaps, the more emotionally challenging role to play throughout the story and in its shocking conclusion. He pulls it all off without a hitch.
It is not giving too much away to say that one will both viscerally shiver and intellectually smile at the jarring final twist of the drama (though the smile will come well after the shiver). The end of the play affirms that, no matter how lost we might feel in this limitless sea of mostly unfeeling, uncaring, miscommunicating people -- and no matter how little solace we are able to find in whatever religious or economic belief system we might from time to time possess -- there will always be someone or something that is able to reach out, to touch us, and -- if we are open to it -- to save ourselves from our own most desperate insecurities.