Tom Stoppard and Conor McPherson each hold pole positions in their respective areas of expertise—Stoppard is the master of idea-driven theater and McPherson is the feelings first guy. In the production of Shining City currently playing in Boston, McPherson’s characters carve out a reality driven by the way it feels inside rather than some rational, linear external version of the story. McPherson has an ear for language of the human heart the way Stoppard has a mind that can constellate powerful ideas into drama.
Here’s a brief overview from critic Albert Williams:
When Shining City made its Broadway debut in 2006, its author, Irish playwright Conor McPherson, candidly discussed his painful journey toward sobriety after years of alcohol abuse—an addiction that nearly cost him his life in 2001, when at the age of 29 he was hospitalized with pancreatitis. “In going to therapists, I realized how many crazy people are in that job,” McPherson told a New York Times writer. “To want to do a job like that, you have to be very attracted to dysfunction.”
The same can be said of most playwrights. And McPherson is a very good playwright. In Shining City—now receiving its beautifully acted Chicago premiere under the direction of Robert Falls, who also staged the New York production—McPherson fuses extraordinary skill at shaping language with an aching awareness of the difficulties of communicating. His characters are remarkably real, and the psychological and spiritual journeys they take are readily recognizable; McPherson has clearly invested himself in each of them.
When McPherson wrote about Samuel Beckett, theater god and fellow Irishman, he holds up a mirror for his own work’s power:
Each one [of Beckett’s plays] is a beautifully honed, determined, focused world unto itself…I believe that his plays will continue to echo through time because he managed to articulate a feeling as opposed to an idea. And that feeling is the unique human predicament of being alive and conscious. Of course, it’s a very complicated feeling (and it’s a complicated idea), but he makes it look simple because his great genius, along with his incomparable literary power, was the precision and clarity he brought to bear in depicting the human condition itself.
“I’ve always had an existential darkness,” McPherson says…”An awareness of the predicament of being alive. We’re alive in this cold and mysterious universe, and we’re only very small. That seems to me to be a stunning predicament.”
It IS a stunning predicament. But when McPherson crafts characters who can speak with such strange and sometimes mad clarity, I am reassured to know that angst is not a solitary journey.