There’s something about sitting in on a stranger’s psychotherapy that brings out the voyeur in all of us. When a patient stands – well, sits -- figuratively naked before a therapist, the admissions, revelations and self-discoveries can be of startling consequence. As witnesses, we bask in them without shame and are free to judge and internalize ourselves. That’s largely the experience of watching, and listening to, Conor McPherson’s Shining City, the one-act drama that opens ion theatre’s new season in Hillcrest. Because of a remarkably honest performance by ion Executive Artistic Director Claudio Raygoza as John, a tormented Dubliner seeking truths from therapist Ian (Francis Gercke), Shining City is a taut, quietly revealing piece of theater. At the same time, under Glenn Paris’ direction, it surprises you when you least expect it, with a raised voice here, a slammed drawer there, and ultimately a shocking finale.
More than half of the play’s 98 minutes are consumed by John’s therapy with Ian, who speaks hardly at all behind a tense, secretive frown. Meanwhile, John unfolds the misery of his longing for human connection, his unapologetic self-centeredness and, looming over it all, the grief and guilt about his wife killed in an accident. He has seen her, John confides, her ghost -- ashen and wet and lurking inside the home they once shared. He is, without saying it outright, haunted. In an obvious but nonetheless intriguing case of “physician, heal thyself,” it turns out that Ian, in his way, is just as lonely, just as unapologetically self-centered, just as haunted.
The cast of four, which also includes Jessica John as Ian’s nervous fiancée, Neasa, and Zack Bonin as the by-intention faceless man whom Ian just as nervously brings home for a tryst, maintains Irish accents and the play’s dour mood with equal grace. There are never more than two actors on stage at the same time, and in this play, one’s listening is just as vital to the story’s messages as is the other’s speaking.
Ion’s Shining City does that so well. Its ghosts, in all manifestations, never speak, either, but they are there: relentless and unignorable.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.