SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 17, 2013

Theater of the mind

'Shining City' is more than just a ghost story

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — Fans of “Ghost Hunters,” the television show in which people hunt for apparitions in abandoned buildings, may want to check out “Shining City” at Salem Theatre Company.

The play, by contemporary Irish playwright Conor McPherson, is also about scary visitors from a world beyond.

But rather than confirming the reality of ghosts, “Shining City” is more concerned with what ghosts mean to the people who see them.

And where cast members of the TV show might search for the truth using night-vision goggles and Geiger counters, “Shining City” is simply a series of conversations between two men: John, who recently lost his wife, and Ian, a therapist.

“This guy says he has actually seen one and is begging to be understood,” said John Fogle, the play’s director. “He wants someone to say, I hear you, I believe you, I recognize this happened.”

The therapeutic relationship is an important element of the play, helping define its structure.

“Most of us will understand the milieu of therapy, the dynamics,” Fogle said, “and the need we have for sharing our stories, talking to people who can help us work through the complexities of living.”

While Ian maintains his clinical cool with his patient, he is also dealing with intense conflicts, which are explored in scenes outside his sessions with John.

“He’s stuck, as well,” Fogle said. “They’re both stuck, and trying to get unstuck, and so they share this need.”

Ian is played by Joseph O’Meara, who appeared at Salem Theatre Company a year ago in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.”

“The emotional truths that come forth from the stage are universal,” he said. “Although it is very much an Irish play, it’s universal pain. I really think it’s about how people try to cope with immense loneliness.”

Like the playwright, O’Meara is Irish, a native of Cork, where he achieved a measure of success singing in a pop band called Thief of Hearts.

“We had a minor chart hit,” he said. “The record took us from local to the national circuit. In Ireland, we were in lots of television shows.”

Starting in the early ’90s, O’Meara appeared in the U.S. with another band, Shoot the Moon, then recorded an album of Celtic music in 2009 that “was extremely well-received and did rather well for me,” he said.

But O’Meara always wanted to try acting and auditioned for Fogle’s production of “Real Thing” after completing a program at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London in 2011.

“There’s an awful lot of acting in singing,” he said. “It is rather a natural progression.”

As a classically trained, interpretive singer, O’Meara relishes the chance to perform well-crafted songs, and he feels the same way about McPherson’s dialogue.

“That’s what it’s all about for me,” he said. “The writing. It’s a powerful piece of work, and his writing leaps from the page.”

Fogle also likes how McPherson captures the way people express themselves, when they are feeling intense psychological pressure.

“His writing is about the patterns of speech, and the content of speech,” Fogle said. He also finds it extremely visual, in a way that audiences should find compelling.

“There is a 10-page monologue in this play,” he said. “As you listen to this guy spill out his guts, you get amazing images. What sounds like it might be too static and dull, most people will find just the opposite. They will get pictures in their minds’ eye that will be wonderful, and personal.”

McPherson’s skill not only creates vivid characters and scenes, but also defines what makes an evening at the theater special, in ways that electronic media rarely match.

“This is theater of the mind, and that’s what theater is best at,” Fogle said. “With computer graphics in movies, in any thriller now they can do anything and that’s what you get — when you go to a movie, you get everything, and it just washes over you.

“In the theater, you get a little, and you’re filling in the rest and use your own imagination. You become a very big player in how the play feels and sounds to you.”

If you go

What: “Shining City” by Conor McPherson

Where: Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette St.

When: Jan. 24 through Feb. 16, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m.

More information: Tickets $25 adults, $20 seniors, $10 students. Name-your-own-ticket-price previews on Thursday, Jan. 24, and Friday, Jan. 25, at 7:30 p.m. You can also ensure seating for the two preview performances by buying tickets for $10 at www.salemtheatre.com. Additional details available at info@salemtheatre.com or 978-790-8546.