Shining City

Two troubled men deal with their changing lives at the Plays and Players Theatre.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 13, 2010

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Change of grace: John (Scott Greer, left) and Ian (William Zielinski) struggle with difficult life transitions.

Photo by PW Staff

All of playwright Conor McPherson’s considerable storytelling talents are on display in Theatre Exile’s involving production of McPherson’s drama Shining City.

A spooky and thoughtful play about two men attempting to turn a page on the past, City is set in the drab apartment and office of Ian (William Zielinski), a priest-turned-freelance therapist.

Ian wants to take a new direction in his life. In addition to leaving the church, he’s leaving his fiancee, Neasa (Geneviéve Perrier, who, in a few seasons, has emerged as one of the area’s most fascinating actors) and young daughter.

A widower named John (Scott Greer) who recently lost his wife in a car accident seeks Ian’s counsel. Like Ian, John is trying to move on with his life. His marriage was troubled before the accident and John remains consumed by guilt for previous infidelities (which he recalls to Ian in a remarkable speech delivered with wrenching emotion). Worst of all, John continues to see his wife’s ghost in their house, eventually forcing him to take up residence in a neighboring B&B.

John’s sessions with Ian are the centerpiece of the play and in the hands of Greer, Zielinski and director Matt Pfeiffer, they’re gripping theater. As John recalls his marital troubles and sexual wanderings to a rapt Ian, Greer’s voice shakes and his large hands twitch. It’s a powerhouse performance that fully conveys the depth of John’s anguish and is worthy of a Barrymore Award.

Following their sessions, Ian picks up a young male hustler (the reliable Keith J. Conallen) for a night of intimacy. Ian tells us it is his first homosexual experience and their sad, desperate night together is strikingly similar to John’s own depressing attempts to find comfort in the arms of a stranger.

The sensitive Ian is a far cry from the muscular, edgy characters Zielinski is known for. As a therapist, the role calls for an actor with a unique ability to listen, and Zielinski is excellent at communicating not only Ian’s authentic desire to help John, but also his need to find some sense of self-worth.

Pfeiffer stages the 90-minute play without intermission and it results in a taut, unpretensious production that builds momentum. Even the scene changes are part of the action, due to the contributions of lighting designer Thom Weaver, who vividly evokes the bleak sunlight of a Dublin winter streaming through the grimy windows in Ian’s apartment, and Jorge Cousineau, whose spare sound design adds to the play’s haunting, elegiac atmosphere.

The play’s conclusion is a heart-stopping surprise. The ending raises more questions than it answers, most notably whether John, Ian or any of us can leave the past behind.

In this play featuring two men filled with regret, McPherson avoids simple moralizing about the need to learn from our mistakes. Redemption is within the characters grasp, but the road to salvation is rocky. In the end, McPherson raises the possibility that the past will follow us not only to the grave—but beyond.

Shining City

Through April 25. $15-$30. Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St. 215.218.4022. 

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