Shining City at Main Stage West, Sebastopol CA

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Members, San Francisco Bay Are Theatre Critics Circle

Photos courtesy of Main Stage West

John Craven, Nick Sholley

Ghosts of the Soul

Modern Irish playwright Conor McPherson is known for crafting stories with elements of the paranormal. His 2004 play “Shining City” was first performed in London’s West End and saw its Broadway debut in 2006. It was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play.

This is a ghost story that’s about more than just floating bits of protoplasm. It’s about haunted people who carry their ghosts around with them. The tale unrolls like an interesting fabric with frayed edges purposely left undone. Set in contemporary Dublin, “Shining City” is spooky drama leavened with wry humor. Taking place entirely in a dingy therapist’s office, it was written to flow seamlessly over five scenes without intermission. At Main Stage West, there is one, and the dynamics remain intact.

The play opens with John (John Craven) arriving at the appointed time. He is jittery and jumpy, as if wired to an electric current. His wife died in a car crash a few months back, and now he’s seeing her spirit in the house they shared. Positive he’s coming unhinged by grief and guilt over his past failures as a husband, he’s visiting a therapist to unload. His therapist Ian (Nick Sholley), an ex-priest, has his own inner ghosts to exorcise. John is his very first patient, and he’s unsure how to proceed. His relationship with his fiancé Neasa (Ilana Niernberger) has hit a rocky patch. For mysterious reasons, he has estranged himself from her and their baby, and she shows up at the office later and demands to know why. Finally, an enigmatic drifter named Laurence (John Browning) appears, summoned by Ian for what he hopes will be a moment of self-discovery.

Ilana Niernberger, Nick Sholley

The expressions “on your own”, “on my own”, “on her own” are used over and over again. This suggests not independence, but loneliness and isolation, a sense of being alone in the company of others. “Frightening” is also repeated a number of times, as if to drive home the terror of aloneness. A number of cathartic monologues delivered by Craven are sheer, spellbinding magic.

The dialogue flows very naturally including those long, awkward conversational gaps where the silence says more than the words ever could. All four performances, as an ensemble, are courageous, creative and spot-on. As the tormented John, Craven’s unease is palpable. Sholley’s Ian conveys the sense of a great listener, assured on the surface with turmoil just beneath. Niernberger gives a notable performance in showing Neasa’s frantic attempt to understand Ian and salvage what’s left of what they once had. And Browning is restrained and insightful as Laurence in his single, surprising scene with Sholley.

Beth Craven’s sensitive and perceptive direction lends just the right touch, enhancing the unique situation of each scene. “Shining City” is quietly moving and provocative at the same time, with an eerie conclusion that raises more questions than it answers. More than just the story, the words pull you along, a mastery of wordcraft over stagecraft.

John Browning, Nick Sholley

When: Now through March 15, 2015

8:00 p.m Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays

5:00 p.m. Sundays

Tickets $15 to $27 (Thursdays are “pay what you will” at the door only)

Where: Main Stage West

104 North Main Street

Sebastopol, CA 95472

(707) 823-0177