Shining City

Burning Coal Theatre Company at Murphey School Auditorium
Through Nov. 18

It’s hard to say exactly when we became the People of the Fear. Take the election cycle that ended yesterday, in which a significant portion of the estimated $9.8 billion in total campaign spending exploited the deep-seated anxieties of millions of voters.

According to the latest industry figures, that number matches the total generated when tickets for this year’s horror, thriller and suspense genre film releases are combined with projected sales from what’s now called the “Halloween industry.” $9.8 billion’s the sum.

Fear, it turns out, is one of the few legitimate growth categories in this economy. How many other sectors chalked up a 24 percent increase last year, on top of 22 percent growth the year before? There’s an undeniable symmetry as we line up at the box office and the ballot box to reward the studios and politicians that have vended the direst, most industrial-grade scares about dystopian futures, insidious neighbors, ecological catastrophes … and, of course, the other candidates.

All of which tends to make Burning Coal’s production of Shining City more than a little quixotic, I’m afraid. In a season in which an almost solid backdrop of ominous political ads has catered to so many of our deepest fears around the clock, the chills in this modest ghost story all but inevitably pale by comparison.

And that’s a shame, because instead of writing a ruthlessly efficient adrenal button-pusher like Wait Until Dark or The Woman in Black, playwright Conor McPherson has crafted here a far more subtle and useful drama. Shining City actually asks us, instead, if we’re smart enough to recognize the very real ghosts that walk among us. Then it queries if we can discern what divides them from the living.

To McPherson’s significant credit, his 90-minute one-act does this without resorting to the facile plot twists of an M. Night Shyamalan. About the time you’re wondering exactly where the ghosts are, you realize they’ve been there all along. And that’s the moment you learn McPherson and director Jerome Davis have added an additional question to this theatrical test: Which of these characters should we be most frightened for?

Your list of suspects includes Ian, a recent ex-priest now just starting a career as a psychotherapist in a gentrifying suburb of Dublin; Neasa, his pregnant fiancée, who supported him through his course of study and is wondering why he hasn’t been home all week; and John, an independent contractor who’s convinced that he’s seen and heard his wife in his home after her death in a car accident.

You’ll learn that each of these three has issues with intimacy, with children or motherhood, and with staying home. And, should you solve the riddle at this shadowed city’s heart, you’ll likely savor the irony of ghosts haunting other ghosts much more than they do the living.

Along the way, you’ll find a trio of compelling, finely drawn performances in this notable cast. A clear-eyed James Anderson convinces us as Ian, a therapist and ex-clergyman who strays out of both depths in dealing with his patient and his girlfriend. Newcomer Laura Tratnik navigates the frustrations and fears of Neasa, who is grasping at the straws of her relationships with increasing desperation. As John, the possibly haunted husband, John Allore arrives at a nuanced portrait of a seemingly regular guy whose dark side slowly blossoms throughout the work.

But that’s no big reveal, since the same is true for most of the characters we encounter here. The thing in Shining City that most of us should be most scared of is the mirror it ultimately holds up to certain relationships and personality types. Despite what they say about ghosts and reflective surfaces, by all means, consider yourself fortunate if you don’t see yourself in its frame.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Fear eats the soul.”