The Ghosts Within

Bad spirits: J.C. Cutler (left) is a widower who tells his therapist (Patrick Bailey) he's being visited by his dead wife
Ann Marsden

at the Jungle Theater
through December 23

Anyone who delves into the lore of the supernatural—whether it's poltergeists bedeviling adolescents or ghosts lamenting the missed opportunities of their corporal lives—quickly figures out that emotional repression underpins a lot of the creepy and unexplained. Conor McPherson's Shining City, with all of its literal and figurative hauntings, follows suit, resulting in a painfully rich portrait of modern life rife with unsatisfied desires, miscommunication, and time lost in the limbo of the unfulfilled.

Director Joel Sass's set is a rundown therapist's office in Dublin (to underscore the seediness, the roof leaks at regular intervals), where all of the action occurs. Our tyro therapist, Ian (Patrick Bailey), opens up shop for a patient named John (J.C. Cutler), who has recently been widowed and has been visited more than once by the ghost of his wife.

Bailey, lean and birdlike, plays Ian as neutral and bland in the opening scene, allowing Cutler to set the emotional tone with a gruffness that eventually gives way to desperate tears. Here and throughout the evening, Sass directs his actors in a way that allows McPherson's cryptic dialogue to breathe.

These characters are so strangulated by life that they often fail to even finish their own sentences (sample dialogue, from Ian: "Well, no, just whatever you want, you just tell your own, we don't have to, you can..."). When John unspools the story of his wrecked marriage in a later scene, Cutler speaks in rhythms of confusion and uncertainty punctuated by outbursts of hard anger.

Before we get there, though, we see Ian breaking up with his girlfriend, Neasa (Cheryl Willis). It turns out Ian is an ex-priest who pressured his pregnant girl not to abort their child, then hit the eject button once the baby was born. Bailey turns petulant and irritable, while Willis flashes between rage and forlorn panic.

McPherson's dialogue, enigmatic and brimming with pauses and self-contradictions, is also dense with little back-story tip-offs that elevate these characters above the miserable cutout wretches they could have become. Neasa alludes to an alcoholic father, defending him in one breath then admitting she has to stay away from him in the next. Cutler delivers lines about John's loneliness and disconnection (he calls the neighbors "those people") first with a reporter's plainness, then with a self-reflection akin to wonder.

We discover what Ian has been keeping under his hat when he brings a male prostitute (Nathan Christopher) back to his flat. In the painful scene that follows, Ian tries to overcome the mountains of repression that keep him from acting on his desires.

John, for his part, sees his mental status improve as he recounts his horrible behavior toward his late wife. Laying it all bare, confronting the crushing, barren terrain of his emotional life, seems to pretty well do the therapeutic trick.

But McPherson isn't going to let us off easy. The work is essentially five short plays presented back to back, and the Jungle stages it in a little less than two hours, with no intermission. The sacrifice of halftime concessions is more than worth it. McPherson's claustrophobic tone builds, and a sense of disaster brews.

Nothing goes spectacularly wrong by the end, though, unless you're bothered by the construction of yet another life based on denial and shattering compromise (a connoisseur's horror, perhaps). But then follows a jarring, eerie final moment that Sass allows to linger for about 10 seconds before lights-out. It's an apt end to this harsh and agitated show, in which the ghosts of denial shatter the peace of the living. It leaves you chilled, but also with the curious sensation of burning that sets in right before the ice makes you numb.

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