Conor McPherson has built his career on ghost stories. One of a handful of then-young playwrights who exploded out of Ireland in the late ’90s, he wrote The Weir, an international hit wherein the patrons of a pub recount the times they saw dead people, when he was 26. He was newly divorced and newly sober by the time of Shining City, a vivid and convincing dissection of regret. First staged in London in 2004, it got a Tony-nominated Broadway run in 2006. Here in our own shining city, Joy Zinoman directed Ed Gero in a well-received Studio Theatre production the year after that.
Scena Theatre’s steadfast new staging has the distinction of featuring Ron Litman, whose cantankerous, largely autobiographical solo musicals (with accompaniment and backing vocals from Tom Pile) have brought a welcome cranky-old-coot pep to the past three Capital Fringe festivals, in a regular acting role—his first since returning in 2009 to D.C., where his theater career began 40 years ago. Litman plays John, a 52-year-old Dublin widower seeking counsel from Ian (Lee Ordeman), a former priest turned mental-health practitioner.
Like most shrinks in fiction, Ian turns out to be a wreck, sloppily trying to break things off with the mother of his young daughter and wrestling with appetites that may or may not have contributed to his departure from the priesthood. The entire play unfolds in Ian’s shabby office, where he listens to country and western ballads in his moments of solitude, and where a dust outline on the wall stage-left shows us a cross has recently been removed. (The set design is credited to ProScenia Design and Elizabeth McFadden.) John’s despair seems more conditional: He comes to Ian for help because he can’t sleep following a spectral visitation from his departed wife.
Ian isn’t a psychiatrist, apparently, because he doesn’t immediately reach for his prescription pad. There’s an irony in an ex-priest’s attempt to convince John the apparition he encountered is nothing more supernatural than a figment of his grief, but McPherson doesn’t lean too heavily on that point, nor does he bother trying to parse to what degree Ian’s past and present professions might overlap. (For more on that rich topic, see the marvelous current film Calvary, from Irish writer-director John Michael McDonagh—brother of Martin McDonagh, one of McPherson’s contemporaries.)
Instead, McPherson is content to sketch John’s account of the unhappy final months of their long, childless marriage in terms that are all the more involving for their intimate scale. Litman expresses John’s illicit charge when receiving a banal, innuendo-free text message from a woman who is not his wife—“I had [my phone] on silent!” he exclaims, as though he’s just snuck into the Louvre or something—with such tragic precision the we perceive instantly that the affair has reached its apex before its begun.
Ordeman is equally strong in a role that requires him to sit and listen to Litman without speaking for long periods of time. Though we’re privy to his moments of anguish, too, his default mode is one of balance and calm, in sharp relief to Litman’s manic energy. Ellie Nicoll and Kevin O’Reilly have only a single scene each as the mother of Ian’s child and a man with whom he a shares a more transactional connection, but both actors leave their mark.
McPherson’s approximation of everyday speech punctuates almost every clause with a “you know” and often has the audience playing fill-in-the-verb as his characters trail off: “I didn’t know she’d…,” “Oh, I thought you…” A lot of this is just the re-creation of Irishness, of course. D.C. has almost as much contemporary Irish theatre as it does Shakespeare; in 2011, Scena and Keegan Theatre’s separate productions of McPherson’s The Weir opened within weeks of one another. Having seen so many of these Irish stories in recent years, I often wonder what if anything they would lose if the American actors performing them were directed not to bother with the accents. To my not-at-all discerning ear, everyone’s brogue sounds convincing enough, and actors love to affect accents as much as audiences love to criticize them, but this story doesn’t seem to require that it be set in Dublin. Guilt and regret know no country.
The twist of the knife that ends the show feels clumsy, but it’s followed, as the actors takes their bows, by “The Wanderer,” the coda of U2’s deeply undervalued 1993 album Zooropa, which preceded the explosion of drama from their home country by just a few years. A rangy, apocalyptic ballad, the song features a guest lead vocalist, one Johnny Cash. So there you have the voice of the Old Testament singing about his crisis of faith over what sounds like the soundtrack to an eight-bit video game (it’s actually Adam Clayton’s heavily treated bassline) while Bono howls woooo-ooooos in the distance. Or maybe it’s a ghost.
A century before Shining City opened, John Millington Synge, W.B. Yeats, and Lady Augusta Gregory (among others) opened the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. George O’Brien’s new solo play Molly—which Scena is presenting in repertory with Shining City—stars Danielle Davy as Molly Allgood, the fiancée Synge left behind when he died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 37 in 1909.
Allgood, who performed under the name Máire O’Neill, had caught Synge’s eye when she appeared in his 1906 play The Well of Saints at the Abbey. She was 14 years younger than he, Catholic, and working class—all reasons Synge felt compelled to conceal their relationship, and particularly to delay breaking the news of his engagement to his mother, whom he would outlive by only a few months.
Synge wrote to Allgood almost daily, signing his letters “Your Old Tramp.” It seems their arranged rendezvous in train cars (but never on the platform) and in the hinterlands were chaste, at Synge’s insistence. They undertook all the exhausting secrecy of carrying on an affair while enjoying none of the carnal pleasures. Indeed, as written by O’Brien and embodied by Davy, Allgood was both charmed and frustrated with her highborn lover’s continence. “He knew nothing about women,” she laments. “Nothing! How would he, living with his mother longer than Jesus?”
But Allgood was a profound influence on Synge’s most famous work, The Playboy of the Western World, in which she originated the role of Pegeen Mike, the barmaid who swoons after a man who swaggers in claiming to have killed his father, and she worked with Yeats to complete Synge’s Deirdre of the Shadows, unfinished at the time of his death. His obituaries omitted her.
It seems shortsighted or worse to dismiss Allgood’s story—and moreover, the attempt to erase her from the official record of Synge’s life—as a mere footnote of literary history. Alas, it turns out to be too thin a nail on which to hang a 90-minute show that’s just Allgood, days after Synge’s death, narrating their affair. Davy is a dexterous actress, and it’s a credit to her that the piece holds together for as long as it does, in the absence of any stakes or revelation or even grief, with only an occasional projected slide for visual support. (We have plenty of time to ponder whether her accent is accurate or not.)
Though she quotes from Synge’s letters to his “changeling,” hearing from him in another voice might give the piece a welcome bit of syncopation. Then again, it isn’t as though history hasn’t already given him his say.