Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Shining City and Travels with My Aunt

Scott Greer and William Zielinski
Photo: Jorge Cousineau
Conor McPherson is an expert at ghost stories. In plays like The Seafarer and The Weir, he tells stories in which spirits play a major part. In Shining City, a supernatural element appears again, but this time it doesn't dominate the play; it's subordinate to the relationships between the characters. Unfortunately, despite some terrific performances by some of the region's best actors, director Matt Pfeiffer's production feels oddly muted. Shining City is intriguing, but it rarely feels involving.

John is a Dublin businessman who has just lost his wife in a traffic accident, and he is dealing with guilt over the cruel way he'd been treating her in her final days. He thinks he's seen his wife's ghost in their house, and now he's afraid to go home. Ian is John's therapist, and it's his job to make John open up about his problems. Yet Ian can't open up about his own problems. He's an ex-priest who has decided to break up with his girlfriend (the mother of his child), but when she asks him why he's leaving her, he can't say much more than "I don't want this relationship." What does Ian want? While John reveals more and more of the torment in his soul, Ian goes in a different direction. Eventually, both stories seem to come to hopeful resolutions, but as usual McPherson has a surprise in store.

William Zielinski and Scott Greer play the therapist and his patient, and they give fascinating and distinctive performances. Greer delivers several long monologues, and he makes the most of them, letting the audience feel all his anguish and isolation. Greer's John knows he's been an insensitive lout, but he doesn't know how to redeem himself, and it's great watching him wrestle with his conscience. Zielinski, who excelled as the protagonist of McPherson's The Seafarer at the Arden Theatre last season, is equally good here. Zielinski plays the less showy of the two main roles, but he digs into it deeply. His Ian often seems bewildered, both by John's behavior and his own, and his struggles to make sense of it all register strongly. Zielinski's bent posture and stooped shoulders reveal a lot about Ian and how his problems have worn him down. There's also an intense, deeply emotional performance by Geneviéve Perrier as Ian's jilted girlfriend, and a nice turn by Keith J. Conallen as someone who may (or may not) help Ian figure out his own issues.

The story is told with very little movement: much of the play consists of therapy sessions in which the two lead actors sit down and talk to each other. No one raises his voice (except in the breakup scene); this is a play of ideas, not a play of action. But this 90-minute, one-act play needs more action—or stronger ideas—to make it compelling all the way through. While the stories John tells Ian are interesting on an intellectual level, they're not gripping enough to make us care deeply about what will happen to the characters. McPherson's dialogue is littered with repetitive phrases such as "You know?" and "You know what I mean?" The language feels natural, but it doesn't feel poetic or distinctive. As a result, the story ends up feeling rather pedestrian. And, as good as the actors are, the constantly changing expressions on Greer's face and the purposefully vacant stare on Zielinski's face just aren't enough to make up for what's missing.

Jorge Cousineau's stark set design caps the walls of Ian's new apartment with jagged edges, a sign that nothing in this world is as settled as it may seem. Cousineau's somber music adds just the right touch, too. There's also some nicely moody lighting from Thom Weaver.

Shining City has some intense moments, yet feels oddly static. The characters grow and develop as the play goes on, yet their journey feels unsatisfying; the play tells but doesn't show. In the end, Shining City works best as an acting showcase. If you see it, expect to be wowed, but don't expect to be moved.

Shining City runs through April 25, 2010 and is presented by Theatre Exile at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $15-$30 and are available by calling 215-218-4022 or online at

David Bardeen, Buck Schirner, Paul Riopelle
Photo: Brett Thomas
At the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio on 3, four actors are playing twenty-four characters in a story that winds its way halfway across the world. It's Travels with My Aunt, and it's been given a delightful, fast-moving production by director John Peakes that never for a moment takes itself seriously.

Based on Graham Greene's 1969 novel, Travels tells the story of 55-year-old Henry Pulling, who has just taken an early retirement from his job as a bank manager. He intends to live out his days tending to his dahlias and rereading the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Then his mother dies, and at the funeral he runs into his Aunt Augusta, a quintessential old English biddy he hasn't seen in over fifty years. Before he knows what's hit him, Henry is joining his aunt on a journey to Istanbul aboard the Orient Express, followed by a voyage to Paraguay. It all has to do with some shady dealings Aunt Augusta was involved with during World War II—and the authorities are still hot on her trail. Suddenly, watching the dahlias bloom just isn't exciting enough for Henry.

Giles Havergal's adaptation of Travels with My Aunt lasts over two hours, and it drags a bit during the second act. The plot is a little too circuitous for its own good, and a few of the novel's digressions could have been cut. But it all works, thanks mostly to Havergal's structure, which requires the actors to play up to nine characters apiece. Each actor seems to be having a blast adopting different voices and attitudes, and the fun is contagious. Three of the four actors take turns playing Henry Pulling, interacting with their fellow actors and narrating the story. The actors are from different generations and have different builds; they don't look anything alike, but costume designer Megan Diehl has clad them all in matching suit coats, and the actors are able to change personas at a moment's notice to make it all convincing.

Buck Schirner doubles as Aunt Augusta, using a voice that Dame Edna might envy, while David Bardeen adopts a South African accent to play Aunt Augusta's most unexpected lover. Paul Riopelle plays a hard-edged CIA agent as well as the agent's fluttery teenaged daughter. And Dan Hodge plays a half dozen supporting roles, everything from a policeman to an Irish Wolfhound.

It all plays out on Robert Kramer's wood-paneled set, which establishes the right tone from the start: We're in an elegant English club, inhabited by gentlemen with oh-so-proper breeding, reveling in the beauty of a rollicking story well-told. It's a jolly good show.

Travels with My Aunt runs through April 18, 2010 at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at or, or by visiting the box office.

-- Tim Dunleavy

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