Ghosts of sanity
Sacramento, CA 95814
The element of surprise is an important component in Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s very interesting (and delightfully unpredictable) play Shining City. It’s a new show for the new year in the B Street Theatre’s noteworthy B3 Series, which stages some of the most consistently imaginative, high-standard productions in these parts.
Shining City, which was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Play a few years ago, begins in a therapist’s office—and given the way that the therapist Ian (played by Kevin Karrick) keeps fiddling with the office furnishings, and seems nervous as his client John (Phil Cowan) arrives, the audience quickly intuits that this therapist must be new to the trade.
A few murmurs of laughter rippled through the audience on opening night as the encounter between therapist and client began; after all, McPherson’s dialog is witty, and multiple shows over on the B Street’s Mainstage have long conditioned local audiences to anticipate comedy when a scene involving psychoanalysis gets underway. But Shining City has an altogether different and much more serious agenda, and director Elisabeth Nunziato and her cast gently but firmly got that point across.
The client is a middle-aged guy and a decently successful businessman, but his life has gone down the proverbial rabbit hole in the wake of his wife’s recent death in a horrible traffic accident. John explains that he’s having trouble sleeping, and then he finally blurts out what’s really eating him: He thinks he’s seen his wife’s ghost at the family home. He’s so unsettled that he’s moved out and taken up residence at a nearby bed-and-breakfast, and he’s desperately hoping that the therapist can help him regain some equilibrium.
We are miles and miles from an upper-crust English comedy like Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Shining City is moody exploration of characters struggling with a sense of disorientation in their unsettled lives and intimate relationships. They sometimes grapple with desire and temptation, and regret after the fact.
Saying much more about the plot would only spoil the rich experience of being in the audience as this unusual—and unconventionally told—tale unfolds. The story doesn’t so much advance as it evolves, with each scene introducing a new angle that illuminates the two main characters. B Street interns Chris Page and Holly Dale each have important (and well-acted) scenes in this regard. Cowan—a one-time morning-radio jock on Sacramento’s airwaves who first appeared at the B Street in another Irish play (A Couple of Blaguards) way back in 1995, and has since done several other roles—shows skill as he handles the monologues in which his character John relates his concerns to the therapist. And Karrick, who appeared with Cowan in McPherson’s The Seafarer in 2008, is a steady presence throughout this production.
And, yes, be prepared for this play to catch you off guard a few times along the way.