‘Shining City’ at Port City Playhouse

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I could hardly contain my anticipation before seeing the Port City Playhouse’s production of Shining City, directed by Becky Patton. The critically acclaimed play, first performed in 2004 and later earning two Tony Award nominations on Broadway, is written by one of the best contemporary dramatists, Conor McPherson, known for spooking audiences with ghost stories. The Irish playwright’s outstanding talent, and his fascination with the supernatural, have produced a number of brilliant and haunting tales of our struggles with life and death. The fact that the now middle-aged playwright has had his own share of existential trials (successfully battling alcoholism and thoughts of suicide) makes his tales painfully real and particularly engaging.

Ian (Andy De) and John (Tom Flatt). Photo by  Michael deBlois.
Ian (Andy De) and John (Tom Flatt). Photo by Michael deBlois.

It is almost eight o’clock. I am in my seat facing the stage and listening to traditional Irish tunes, and I will soon find out that the music choices and sound design by David Correia will continue to impress me throughout the performance. By now I am familiar with almost every detail of Becky Patton’s set – a rather scruffy, yet cosy, room dominated by a sofa, arm chair, and a coffee table, complemented by an eclectic choice of office furniture. I cannot help but notice a white cross on the top of a bookcase and a photo of a baby on the office desk. The only wall ornament is a light-coloured canvas, later cleverly used when the lights are down, to project images illustrating the protagonist’s unhappy, childless marriage. These are the moments when the valuable contribution of the experienced Lighting Designer Nancy Owens would be most crucial.

The music fades, as do the lights, only to return momentarily for the opening scene of Shining City. It takes us straight into a tale of human despair told by John (Tom Flatt), a depressed widower tormented by the apparitions of his tragically killed wife Mari (Michelle McBeth). From the moment Flatt enters the stage and starts delivering lines, I am instantly impressed by Flatt’s acting and physical presence. I become hooked on his every word and gesture, and I am amazed by not only his ability to perfectly immerse himself into the role, but also by the rawness and authenticity of the language of his character, full of ‘you knows’, ‘f’ words, pauses, and hesitations. As the play progresses I also am grateful to to the playwright McPherson’s moving glimpse into a psyche of an average working male, who feels deeply but struggles to articulate himself, and when he finally succeeds, the result is overwhelming.

It is a month of May, and John, who had moved out of the family house to escape his dead wife’s ‘visits,’ can no longer cope and urgently needs to see a counsellor. The first is Ian (Andy De), an ex-priest and newly-fledged therapist, and father with his own set of dilemmas. Ian’s job is to listen which leaves John to do most of the talking in their subsequent encounters, which makes me a very happy audience member indeed.

The other cast members also deserve much praise. Daniel Westbrook’s performance as Laurence, a young father and an impoverished male escort, comes across as exceptionally arresting in a scene made particularly funny with the help of the comedic talents of Andy De as Ian, and aptly chosen music.

Neasa (Ashley Amidon). Photo by Michael deBlois.
Neasa (Ashley Amidon). Photo by Michael deBlois.

Ashley Amidon, as Neasa, Ian’s girlfriend and his baby’s mother, effectively displays the despair and helplessness, and shows that she is as needy and lost as her boyfriend and his client. All four characters are stuck and unable to move forward, feeling lonely, lacking security of a stable home, misunderstood yet unable to communicate. Are they victims of their own circumstances, or are they victims of their inability to take risks and fight for a better life, or both? One thing is certain; they are unable to cope on their own and form superficial relationships which are void of trust and respect. And they use others as ‘crutches’ – feeling guilty and flawed in the process. Sounds familiar, does it not?

What will become of them? What choices will they make? Will John find peace and freedom from the ghost of his wife? Come see the show and find out what happens.

Don’t miss Port City Playhouse’s Shining City! Let this brilliant study of “loneliness in the crowd” help you face your own ghosts. You will learn that suffering in silence is unnecessary when you can open up to another human being. And be ready for the unexpected. After all, Conor McPherson is a master of surprise.

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Shining City plays through March 14, 2015, at Port City Playhouse – 1819 North Quaker Lane., in Alexandria, VA. To purchase tickets, order them online.

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