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Irish Rep returns to its overhauled Chelsea theatre with a revival of a Conor McPherson ghost story
Ever since the award-winning Irish Repertory Theatre opened Off Broadway in 1988, cofounders Ciarán O'Reilly (Producing Director) and Charlotte Moore (Artistic Director) have programmed their seasons with incredible care, spotlighting a wide variety of classic and contemporary cultural works. But when choosing their current play, a revival of Conor McPherson's 2006 Tony-nominated Shining City, they were particularly picky. After all, this is the inaugural production at their newly renovated Chelsea home after two seasons of producing in limbo.
"This is the third McPherson I've directed," says O'Reilly, who was born in Ireland and still sports a charming brogue, even after more than three decades in New York City. "I previously did The Weir and Port Authority [both last season at the DR2 Theatre in Union Square]. I just love that man's words. They feel like they come from a place of truth. In searching for the first production back in our theatre, Charlotte and I went back and forth about whether to do a classic Irish play, something by Sean O’Casey or even The Playboy of the Western World, or something more contemporary. We weren't sure which direction to go in. But Conor sort of bridges both worlds; he's what I call a living classic playwright. Also -- and it might sound a little pretentious -- the four characters in Shining City are, for different reasons, all out of their homes. For the last couple of years, that's the situation our theatre has been in. So that was one of the reasons we chose it. But mainly we just think it's a great play and it felt like the right one to kick off with."
On the surface, McPherson's haunting one act is a deceptively simple story. There are just four characters, and only two are ever onstage at a time. All the (in)action takes place in the Dublin office of Ian (Irish Rep regular Billy Carter), a former priest turned therapist, as he treats his first patient, a widower named John (two-time Tony-winner Matthew Broderick) who's plagued by visions of his late wife. Of course Ian has deep-seeded issues of his own. Through intense interactions, the characters try to connect but continually fail. Fittingly, much of their "dialogue" is actually monologues, as another looks on, listening or, perhaps, mulling over their own problems. In Shining City, it's not just the ghosts who seek peace but the living.
John in particular talks a blue streak -- sometimes 20 minutes at a time. O'Reilly knew he needed an experienced actor to pull it off, and he immediately thought of his friend Broderick, who's making his Irish Rep debut (in a finely tuned accent). "His acting is always so understated that sometimes people think it's just him," O'Reilly says. "He hides the acting and I love that. That's the sort of performer the role of John needs. I didn't think Matthew was going to do it. He doesn't need to come to our 150-seat theater! But I sent him the script and he loved it. Matthew started to work on his lines well before we began rehearsals, which he said he's never done before. It's a big challenge. I don't think I've ever done a play that has, "You know?" this many times. It's such a struggle for these characters to communicate with each other. Matthew's digging really deep, going places that he hasn't been asked to go before. It gets richer every show that he does."
Without giving too much away, one of the most potent scenes takes place between Ian and a man he barely knows named Laurence (James Russell), who asks what he does for a living. "That's one of my favorite speeches," says O'Reilly. "Ian says that he helps 'people who might just feel a little bit...stuck' and that he gets them to 'perceive reality.' But he's describing himself! He says it with a total lack of irony. This is exactly what his own problem is: He's not moving, he's stuck, and he's not perceiving reality."
In addition to the show, longtime Irish Rep audiences can look forward to all kinds of improvements to the still-intimate space, including comfy new seats, additional bathrooms, and other enhancements. "We used to have a section beside the stage that we called 'the jury,'" O'Reilly says. "But that's gone and we have a new balcony, which is the biggest structural change. We raised the grid up about six feet to accommodate sightlines from the balcony and we installed catwalks around for lighting and sound purposes. It's a brand-new air-conditioning system. The house lighting is completely new as well. We're not finished with the smaller downstairs studio theatre. It's going to be a very cool experimental place."
Listening to O'Reilly enthuse about the revamped space, it's clear that, even after 28 years at Irish Rep, he's not ready to move on. And why should he? "It's my life's passion," he insists. "We've gone through this transitory hell getting to this point, and I'm getting very excited about getting back and getting seasonal work done. I don't think I'll go away for quite some time."
Photos by Carol Rosegg. Top image: Matthew Broderick and Billy Carter