Third Rail Repertory bills their current production of Irish playwright Conor McPherson's Shining City as a ghost story—in his notes in the program, director Slayden Scott Yarbrough treats us to a slew of ghost-related anecdotes, about sightings and hauntings both apocryphal (his infamously haunted alma mater) and personal (his own father's ghost sighting).
Despite the cutesy director's notes, though, it doesn't seem quite correct to file Shining City in the same category as Ghost Dad: The play doesn't assume or imply the existence of the paranormal. Ghosts here are purely symbolic, with a meaning that is teased out over the course of this well-tuned show.
Ian (Michael O'Connell) is a priest-turned-psychiatrist who has recently left his girlfriend and child and set up practice in his own apartment. The entirety of the intermission-less play is set in his office, with scenes ping-ponging between Ian's efforts to resolve his complicated personal life, and his sessions with John, a patient having trouble dealing with the death of his wife. (John sought help after seeing his recently deceased wife's "ghost" in their house.)
The play's construction is precise and literary, each scene arranged with an almost musical sensibility (an impression reinforced by the "passage of time" interludes betweenscenes, scored with moody guitar). Playwright McPherson neatly balances the show's structural formality with loose, natural dialogue and ordinary-seeming characters. Bruce Burkhartsmeier is particularly unaffected as John: His hesitations and stammerings in his first therapy session immediately beg the question: Are we watching a highly accomplished actor portraying a confused and traumatized man, or is Burkhartsmeier just having trouble with his lines? Fortunately it soon becomes clear that the former is the case, and Burkhartsmeier carries the show as an uncomplicated man moving through a complicated psychological crisis.
The show takes a while to get rolling, in part because the accents can be distracting—the only actor who manages to make it through an entire scene, brogue intact, is the excellent Val Landrum as John's ex-girlfriend Neasa. (It's worth making the effort, though, to preserve the rhythms of McPherson's language.) Bear out the first few minutes, and the show will reward you. Once John begins to reveal the complexity of his feelings for his wife, and once the true extent of Ian's own issues become clear, Shining City develops an irresistible momentum, with the play's elegant structure bolstered by thoughtful performances, for yet another solid production from Third Rail.