“Shining City” is a play about ghosts.
There’s a literal ghost, Mary, who can’t seem to leave her husband John alone. But there are also emotional ghosts: secrets, pent-up and festering in the heart, bitter frustrations and perverse longings, unspeakable thoughts and inexcusable actions, all waiting to burst out into the light before the viewer’s eyes. The play’s plot may revolve around spirits, but the true spirits that the story narrows in on belong to the living.
Set in a therapist’s office with all the usual trappings — cluttered desk, plain couch, the always-ready box of tissues just within hand’s reach — the play has a feeling of looking in, of a furtive, almost embarrassing fetishization of the private. Here, relationships splinter apart; marriages face their cruelest truths; people unravel, and unravel, and unravel, burdened by guilt, anger, self-loathing and fear. And it’s all for us to see, ghastly and gruesome and ugly — but also helplessly, hopelessly addicting.
By far the show’s strongest character is Neasa, the fiancée of Ian, a newly minted therapist who finds himself caught up not just in John’s demons but also in his own. Played by the brilliant Charlotte Juergens ’16, Neasa explodes onto the stage with a force that’s extraordinarily abrasive — and extraordinarily captivating. The actress and the character are indistinguishable: Juergens is Neasa, Neasa is Juergens and it’s hard to believe that she is acting, that the screaming is not out of true fury, that the crying is not out of true despair, that the final, quiet steps out through the door are not real.
Laurance, an honest father and an honest prostitute, makes a brief but striking appearance. Right from the outset, actor Noah Konkus ’18 charms. Twitchy, restless, leg shaking up and down, hands shoved in pockets, the guileless Konkus brings a breath of fresh air to a play dominated by the double-crossing and the double-crossed. His acting is effortless, almost an extension of himself — slick banter, dry humor and an irresistible range of expressions in moments of silence. Konkus’s Laurance steals the spotlight from Ian, played by Aidan Kaplan ’17.
“Shining City” is Kaplan’s first play, and for the most part, he pulls off his character with remarkable grace. For the majority of scenes, Ian is fresh-faced and earnest, and Kaplan carries these scenes with wide eyes, anxious smiles and poorly timed but well-meaning interjections. However, scenes that require more depth come off slightly flat. In particular, Ian and Neasa’s confrontation feels more like a one-sided battle, with Juergens hoisting most of the scene. One exception is Ian’s encounter with Laurance, during which Kaplan really settles into his character: the entire 15 minutes is poignant, touching and all too short.
Kendrick Kirk ’17, who plays John, grounds the entire show. He is the steady voice that welcomes viewers back from the most painful drama onstage. John is perhaps the most challenging character to portray in “Shining City”: he is at once friendly and despicable, cognizant and dense, but Kirk manages the whole affair with professional ease. His every movement might be calculated — the slipping-off of his shoes, the wild gesticulating of his hands — but it all appears natural, seamless. While in some moments Kirk falters as John (John’s horror at being haunted by his late wife doesn’t seem to reach full strength), in other moments, Kirk completely awes. After all, carrying on a monologue for 40 minutes and still managing to keep audience members on the edge of their seats is no simple task.
While “Shining City” for the most part is expertly directed by Conor Bagley ’16 and expertly produced by Damla Ozdalga ’18, the play’s more technical aspects have room for improvement. The music — when not used as a plot point — often detracts from the scenes themselves. In one scene, Ian and John have a tender leave-taking that comes off more cheesy than satisfying, simply because of the Christmas carols in the background. The play’s set changes are also uneven. While some of these set changes are fluid and even unexpectedly gorgeous (one in particular features Kaplan moving in the shadows, quietly rearranging his desk and adjusting his tie), other set changes are slow, clunky and awkward.
“Shining City” is not an easy play. It’s not fast-paced and certainly not action-filled. However, it’s a fascinating portrayal of ordinary life rendered extraordinary, not just by ghosts but also by secrets. These are troubled individuals, living troubled lives, in troubled circumstances. We’re not meant to understand them completely — not even to begin to understand them. And that’s okay. After all, we’re just peeking in.