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Not content to leave its Ringwald home inactive, Who Wants Cake? has actually mounted a second, concurrent production this Halloween season: Conor McPherson's Shining City. Although markedly smaller and subtler than the company's blood-smeared Evil Dead: The Musical, this "contemporary ghost story" is no second-string production. With the right attention to atmosphere and a foundation of noteworthy performances, this understated piece masks its considerable power to rattle the suggestible viewer.

The structure of McPherson's long one-act script is in itself daring, fleshing out parallel stories and leaving it to the viewer to puzzle out how and why they complement and inform each other. The action takes place in the office of new therapist Ian (Jamie Richards) and follows the progress of recently widowed patient John (Joe Bailey), who fears his late wife is haunting him. Sessions with John are balanced by scenes from Ian’s personal life, including a blazing fight with Neasa (Cassandra McCarthy), the mother of his child, and a hesitant, clumsy scene with a stranger (Matthew Turner Shelton). Contrasting scenes in which Ian participates with ones in which he merely listens is certainly an interesting choice, one that deepens the character and reminds the viewer that this isn’t some kind of horror movie — life goes on as usual, even when one person is battling with literal and figurative ghosts.

Richards is a reliable linchpin cementing the two halves of the story, an active listener while in session, but a bit of a mess when he’s in the driver’s seat. McCarthy’s performance sparks with furious loss as she cannot reconcile that the man she wants feels differently about her, and Shelton’s comparatively quiet, fumbling exchange feels sweetly mournful. But without question, the show belongs to Bailey’s pages-long monologues as John. Director Jamie Warrow’s staging is purposefully static in John’s sessions, leaving the actor with no more than facial expressions and highly practiced movements to slowly unfurl the background of his marriage. His wife mysteriously killed in a taxi while on some errand he’ll never know, John’s initial sympathy is chipped away the more he reveals, filling in the blanks of a dysfunctional partnership for which he at least shares the blame. Admirably mastering the character’s idiosyncratic patter, Bailey’s performance is funny out of nowhere, achieves slow-building suspense, and remains consistently riveting.

This boldly quiet production is filled out by a well-furnished set (design and props both by Warrow) whose sense of displacement is magnified by a clearly fake cityscape out the window that casts a disconcerting glow in the dusk between scenes. Joe Plambeck’s lighting design features one repeated cue that practically hisses be scared now, but, obvious or not, it worked on me despite myself. Even more successful was the sound design (by Plambeck and Warrow), with one pervasive sound so understated I’m still not entirely sure I wasn’t imagining it. The overall effect, meted out only at key points, left this viewer wondering why I was so unsettled just by people talking.

The prevailing sensation of Shining City is that ghosts may or may not be real, but if they are, they must exist in some version of our reality. McPherson's unique perspective further suggests that we may be too caught up in our own lives to bother to understand our ghosts. And not understanding means not predicting, not stopping — as this production convincingly displays, the suggestion that something out of our control may lurk just beyond our everyday conversations is just cause for trepidation.


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