"Shining City," the haunting, atmospheric play by Conor McPherson set in a Dublin therapist's office that doubles as an echo chamber for lost souls, is an eight-cylinder engine of melancholy fueled by a full tank of high-grade regret.
Which is to say that this show, a 100-minute one-act that opened Thursday night in the Irish Classical Theatre Company's Andrews Theatre, is a knowing and masterful expression of the Irish condition. And this production, imbued with perfectly naturalistic language by McPherson and a maximum of emotional depth and sophistication by visiting director Gordon McCall, lets those souls have their say.
Each of the characters in "Shining City," like many of its viewers, is confined to varying degrees inside the decisions they have made. Each has built a kind of cage out of their own guilt or regret over their actions or thoughts, and you get the sense that they're grasping together, however feebly, toward a coordinated jailbreak.
"Lost soul," as a descriptor, doesn't quite begin to describe the play's most engaging and complex character, a middle-aged Dublin businessman played with harrowing humanity by Vincent O'Neill. The first time O'Neill's character, John, enters the shabby office of his psychologist, Ian (Chris Kelly), he is a hobbled mass of nervous energy. And understandably so -- he believes he's just seen the ghost of his recently departed wife wandering around the house they shared.
As Ian attempts to help John sort out his problems, which are based in some part on an ill-advised dalliance with another woman out of which a crippling sense of self-loathing has grown, we begin to understand just how terribly unmoored John has become in mind and spirit. We watch as he gradually regains his footing, sputtering and stuttering along the way, and finally prepares to launch himself off into a new world of mistakes and regrets.
Not that Ian, whom the gifted Kelly plays with a captivating mixture of intense self-consciousness and emotional fragility, is much better off. The therapist is in the process of separating from his wife (played, in a typically overwrought performance, by Kelly Meg Brennan), herself a walking nerve ending living in her own peculiar little guilt-house. Ian has abandoned the priesthood, for which he seems to carry a lingering guilt that he later tries to extinguish via a mildly dangerous liaison with a street hustler (Michael Renna). In vain, of course.
Aside from McPherson's walking representations of crushing guilt juxtaposed with in-built desperation for redemption and connection, what qualifies this play as extraordinary is McPherson's considerable skills with language. As master of the monologue (see "The Weir") McPherson, like an earthbound version of Brian Friel, shines brightest when he allows his characters to speak uninterrupted about their inner lives. When McPherson's damaged men and women interact with one another, those interactions are intentionally stilted.
McPherson's suggestion is that only we can truly know ourselves, punish ourselves and finally forgive ourselves, however inborn our desire to relate to other people might be. And lofty as it may sound, that's the paradox at the heart of "Shining City," at the heart of much great Irish drama and literature, and at the heart, in some undeniable way, of the human condition.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Presented through May 22 by Irish Classical Theatre Company, Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St.
Tickets are $32-$42. Call 853-4282 or visit www.irishclassicaltheatre.com.