Brett Foster

Stumbling Around in the Light

On Conor McPherson.

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The Weir's ghost stories put McPherson on a path toward a more direct, sustained engagement with the supernatural in his plays. In Shining City, a fiftysomething businessman, John, visits a therapist following the death of his estranged wife in a car accident. We soon learn that John feels unhinged because he is convinced that his wife's ghost remains present in their home. As he works painfully toward a self-reckoning, it becomes clear that the counselor, Ian, an expriest, is also concealing his own histories and mysteries. The second meeting between the men is a gorgeously written scene, with John's resistance to the session itself and his struggle to narrate—to come to terms with, to find terms for—his marital failings and his resilient guilt. Here is an early exchange between client and counselor:

You know, when you're young. And you're told about … what to expect I suppose. It is kind of happy ever after. But it's … you know, it's weird to accept what happiness really is, you know, or what it is … nothing is ever like anyone expects, is it, you know? Like, it's not a fairy tale … I mean, it has to be just kind of ordinary, you know? A bit boring even, otherwise it's probably not real, you know?
IAN: … Yeah … ?
JOHN: No, it's, it's just that … we probably had it, you know? I mean when I think of it, really, we … we had it all, you know? But it's, it's hard to … accept … that this is it. You … you go … searching, not searching, I wasn't going anywhere searching for anything, but, I think I was always slightly … waiting … you know?

This tentative recounting soon rises to a pitch that is searing, a word I regularly find myself using when describing McPherson's dramatic powers to others. Eventually John describes to Ian how, as his marriage was disintegrating, he rounded on his wife: "And I … grabbed her by the shoulders and I shook her. I shook her so hard. I could feel how small and helpless she was. It was a terrible feeling." Don't you dare speak to me, he erupts.

And she just cowered down on the floor—nothing like this had ever happened between us before, you know? And she curled herself up into a little ball there down beside the bin. And the sobs just came out of her, you know? Just the total … bewilderment, you know?

Yet even amid such hard-to-watch scenes of disclosure, admission, and regret, there is often the prospect of better understanding or even healing hovering just above. Pondering his wife's ghost at the end of this scene, John asks out loud if she is trying to hurt him, but then wonders if he has it all wrong. "Maybe she's … maybe she's just trying to save me, you know?"

In The Seafarer, there is a similar struggling search for healing, for finding a way to be at peace with oneself amid a pile-up of failings. The title alludes to the well-known Anglo-Saxon poem of exile: "Oppressed by cold my feet were bound by frost / In icy bonds, while worries simmered hot / About my heart, and hunger from within / Tore the sea-weary spirit." The characters here are wanderers, too, haunted by mistakes and running from responsibilities. At one point, Richard says that his younger brother Sharky has a "recklessness in his heart that is the undoing and ruination of his whole life." That flare of paired words, "undoing and ruination," like something from a 17th-century treatise, illustrates well McPherson's frequent poetic flourishes. Generally, though, the language is crisply boisterous and coarse, befitting a group of men on the fringe who speak so bluntly to their friends that they sound like enemies.

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