Therapy at the Theatre: Reflections on Colin Mc Pherson’s SHINING CITY

by Kevin Clancy

In his farewell speech, as President of the United States, Ronald Reagan spoke of what he called “the shining city”, describing it as, “God blessed and teeming with people of all kinds, living in harmony and peace”. Conor Mc Pherson’s Dublin is no such luminous place, more a Strumpet City on speed! John, a client, shows up to see Ian, a therapist, referred by his GP. As it transpires, the therapist of choice was not available. Grief is the presenting problem of this fifty something sales rep., which is compounded by a visit he has had from his recently deceased wife.

As the drama unfolds over five scenes in the shabby office of the therapist, it becomes increasingly apparent that the client is not the only one in the room with problems.  Ian the therapist has his own stash of buried skeletons. Both men are haunted by demons. They each have had less than satisfactory relationships with women. Ian has only recently left the priesthood. His girlfriend who struggled to put him through therapy training, is now living along with their child, in the box room of the house of Ian’s brother and sister in law. She is understandably furious when Ian announces that he wishes to terminate their relationship. Although he doesn’t tell her why, it soon becomes clear that he is endeavouring to come to terms with his own sexuality. Both John and Ian are displaced persons, haunted by the spectre of their past, struggling to seek out an elusive self. As the play unfolds, Mc Pherson brings us on an emotional excursion into the male psyche and affords us a glimpse of how it can sometimes surface the stuff of suicide for men caught up in a such a maelstrom.

The dialogue punctuates the awkward relationship between Ian and John, in half finished and interrupted sentences, not unlike what transpires in a therapy session.  This narrative form works especially well in the series of poignant monologues in which John tells his story. Stanley Townsend, as John, is both masterful and mesmerising in the manner in which he brings the audience on a rollercoaster ride of misadventure that is by turn hilarious and hapless. Michael Mc Elhatton, as the therapist has little to do other than make appropriate sounds and nods. The final scene has John showing up, unannounced, complete with present (a lamp) for Ian, a token of thanks for his help.  John now appears self possessed, presenting with spontaneity, and aliveness of affect. The therapy has obviously worked, and no thanks to Ian’s skill as a therapist, one might assume. But perhaps it was precisely Ian’s unknowingness that affected a wounded healer aspect and thus contributing to the positive outcome of the therapy. As I left the theatre, I wondered if John and Ian might have been a play on words, two aspects of the same person?

I found Shining City a most engaging and enjoyable evening’s theatre and I look forward to more of the same from this young and gifted Dublin playwright. Colin Mc Pherson believes that the heart of drama is conflict “I find that there’s enough conflict in one person to make a whole play – all those swings and oscillations in the mind, the self doubt, the uncertainty the stupid courage, the terrible feelings of inadequacy – that’s more than enough” (NY Times 2/5/03).

Kevin Clancy is a psychotherapist in private practice in Cork city.  He can be contacted at (021) 4892108.