Chicago Theatre Review
Haunted by Life
Shining City – Irish Theatre of Chicago
Three men and a young woman slowly come to understand that they’re each being haunted by their own private ghosts in Conor McPherson’s 2004 Tony nominated play. Set in present day Dublin, Ian, a young therapist, is setting up his practice in a sparsely furnished renovated office building. He’s expecting the arrival of his first client, John, a middle-age man recovering from the recent loss of his wife in a tragic automobile accident. Through a series of long, sadly revealing, heartfelt monologues, John confesses his sorrow, anger, guilt and confusion over his wife’s sudden death. He also reluctantly admits his reason for seeking professional help: he’s being haunted by his wife’s ghost, still dressed in the bright red coat he once gave her.
In the second of five scenes that comprise this 100 minute one-act, some time has passed and a young woman pays Ian a visit. Neasa is Ian’s lover and the mother of his baby daughter. Haunted by his past in the priesthood and a lot of self doubt, Ian harbors a troubled image of who is and where he’s going. He admits he’s falling out of love with the young woman, especially after he discovers that Neasa hasn’t always been faithful and that the baby may not actually be his daughter. The couple end their scene in a sad, but inevitable breakup.
More time passes and John pays Ian another visit, during which he opens the floodgates, confesses his shortcomings and unloads a life of hidden guilt. Through John’s lengthy narrative the audience, and Ian, come to learn the deeper secrets hidden within John’s past that continue to haunt him.
The following scene reveals more surprises about Ian. Previously he had known and continues to lead his own secret life. Having that night cruised an area known for its gay hustlers, Ian brings a battered young man named Laurence back to his office for an evening of companionship. The relationship isn’t easy, particularly for Ian, and their tenuous connection makes for an uncomfortable encounter, haunted by the pasts of both men.
The final scene finds Ian packing up his office when John arrives to present him with a thank you gift for all his help. Ian confesses that he’s going to give it another go with Neasa and her baby after moving them out of Dublin. In doing this, Ian hopes to free Neasa and himself from all their ghosts and to start anew. However, just as Ian is about to depart from his office, something very unexpected happens that leaves the audience in complete surprise as the play ends.
Like Conor McPherson’s other successful plays (“The Weir,” “Dublin Carol,” “Port Authority,” “The Seafarer”), there’s no resolution is offered at the final curtain. This particular drama is a ghost story, laced with surprising humor and balanced with subtle poignancy. It relates the tale of two men, haunted by their individual pasts, striving to comprehend what’s happening to them.
Jeff Christian has directed this play with surefire naturalness and an intimacy that comes equally from McPherson’s script and from Ira Amyx and John Peplinski’s simple, elemental set design. His drama plays out in an unaffected, everyday manner. Mr. Christian has smartly allowed McPherson’s realistic dialogue to be the star of his production and he keeps his actors forthright in their portrayal.
Sporting an impressive resume of impressive credits, Coburn Goss is magnificent as Ian. The actor has an effortless way of making the ordinary seem extraordinary. As a psychiatrist who’s hiding is own psychological secrets, Mr. Goss carefully allows his character to gently and unhurriedly reveal the phantoms tormenting his seemingly calm, ordinary life. He is matched by Brad Armacost’s unbelievably moving portrayal of John. The actor finds pain and anguish in the most mundane, everyday occurrences that most people would simply take for granted. His unfolding horror mounts at the gradual realization of his role in the tragedy that befell his wife. Within his sharp grasp, Mr. Armacost’s character, deceptively simple at first, becomes a very complex man before our eyes. His confession, unfolding naturally at a quiet pace, allows John’s facade to peal away like the skin of an onion. Equally excellent, both Carolyn Kruse as Neasa and Shane Kenyon as Laurence stand out in their individual scenes with Mr. Goss. The entire cast leaves a vivid impression of four people haunted by their own lives.
For some audiences this play may be frustrating for its lack of action. Not much seems to happen and Conor McPherson offers no resolution for what has transpired. But trust in the moment. It’s the quiet, psychological horror permeating everyone’s life that’s recognizable that frightens us. It grabs the playgoer and never releases him until well after the houselights are restored. Indeed, with its natural pacing, its realistic dialogue, its familiar, everyday characters and its subtle surprises, this is a production that will continue to haunt audiences long after the final curtain.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented by the Irish Theatre of Chicago (formerly the Seanachai Theatre Company) at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-878-3727 or by going to www.irishtheatreofchicago.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.