What's it about?
Ian, a therapist and ex-priest, counsels John, an older, fumbling Dubliner. John has lost his wife in a car accident and now is being haunted by her ghost.
What'd I experience?
I am a wimp when it comes to scary stories. There, I said it. I can barely handle a horror movie trailer or a brief summary of an Agatha Christie novel without double-checking the locks on the windows. But, with squinted eyes and flinched shoulders, I chase the freaky feeling.
So, naturally, I ended up in the audience of Conor McPherson’s ghost story, Shining City, which is currently playing at The Irish Repertory Theater in Chelsea. In the back row of the balcony, I could see both the stage and the lighting grid. The apartment onstage looked bare to me, and immediately I read this bizarre room setting as someone’s place of hiding or private space. The blinds were pulled down and the space seemed too empty to be inhabited for a long period of time. Something felt off. I quickly checked the playbill to see if I could pull any context for the setting.
“Time and Place - Dublin”.
Hm… Alrighty then, guess this piece was timeless?
Soon, I watched Ian, a therapist and ex-priest, counsel John, an older, fumbling Dubliner. John tells Ian that he has lost his wife in a car accident and now is being haunted by her ghost. Though my family is from a different region in Ireland, the accents felt like old friends. I thought of how my aunts impersonate our relatives with Irish brogues, shouting Gaelic epithets and “Jesus, Mary, Joseph"s. My ears danced along with the non-American rhythms and repeated Irish slang and curses.
The phrase “ya know” was constantly uttered by John. As John spoke of his wife’s death and his grief, I began to internalize his “ya know”s and reflected on my own understanding of loss and of unexpected mourning. Regardless of the time and place the story is set in, the experience of the death of a loved one can always connect me to another. I empathized with this adorable little Irish man and felt his pain, even as he stuttered through his stories. When dialogue would end abruptly or thoughts were left partially unsaid, I felt a sense of trust, like I already knew what he was going to say and he somehow knew that he didn’t need to fully verbalize it.
Even when John began to reveal his infidelity to his wife, Mari, and how he knew he just didn’t treat her with kindness before her death by flagrantly blaming her his dissatisfaction with life, I couldn’t help but feel so sorry for the both of them. Because Mari did not exist onstage, I only heard John’s rendition of the story, I only laughed at John’s humor. I wanted to like him, quite honestly, to find my own little Irish uncle in this character. But I constantly found myself wondering how I would feel if this was couple’s counseling, if Mari were not dead and thus unable to speak to her experience of being mistreated and “left alone in the world.” I felt compelled to pick a side.
Then, John had this incredible line about being on autopilot when he is cheating on his wife. He reflects, “But everything I was doing was wrong, so nothing made sense.” Oof. This one punched me in the gut. I was a girl who grew up with a fairly stringent moral order, with a distinct construction of what I believed was right and wrong. As a junior in college now, I am a much more experienced mistake-maker and this snowball effect of blundering and hurting others feels much more tangible. Sometimes, errors are made and you don’t even know who you are as it happens; sometimes nothing feels real, including culpability and wrongdoing. This line made so much sense to me, and I was grateful to be thinking about how flawed we are as humans that evening.
As John reveals what has been plaguing him, Ian’s personal life is revealed to the audience. Ian left the priesthood to be with a woman whom he had a daughter with, but he is now trying to separate himself from her. Over the course of the play, he pursues other romantic relationships which left me totally surprised.
Though I did not expect it to, my heart completely ached for Ian and John. My brain registered that these two men were the ones who were at the root of the pain. They were abandoning their partners, they were stumbling through relationships, they were making selfish choices. But they were confused as hell about it. It didn’t make it okay. It just was.
Ultimately, the play culminated with something pretty horrifying. Something that left me breathless, unable to even swallow as my eyes darted around at other audience members trying to see if they were seeing what I was. Still, I found myself leaving the theater thinking about the afterlife and hoping that it isn’t as ghoulish and malevolent as this story presented to me. In the last scene, John expresses that he hopes the supernatural, the afterlife, even God exists just to give purpose to all this silliness taking place in our immediate lives and well, I guess I tend to agree with him.
Want to see it?
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