The last time Ronald Reagan referred to America as a "shining city on a hill," he directly attributed the quote to the Puritan John Winthrop. Winthrop, he said, wrote the phrase en route to America to "describe the America he imagined," which, according to Reagan, "was important, because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man."
This is bullshit. Winthrop never said "shining city on a hill"; he just said "city on a hill." And the America that Winthrop imagined was a grimmer place than the one Reagan meant to conjure with his words. Winthrop was a staunch anti-Democrat, and he believed he had a right to Indian land because the Indians had "failed to subdue it." Winthrop was also personally responsible for the hanging of adulterers as well as the framing of the "American Jezebel" Anne Hutchinson — who, as a religious free-thinker in the Colonies, is surely a more meaningful proto-American and pioneer of religious freedom than Winthrop ever was.
Even the phrase itself — "city on a hill" — is less friendly than you might think. The full quote, minus some typically long-winded Puritanical huff-and-puff, goes like this: "We shall be as a city on a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us. If we deal falsely with our God ... we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.... Open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God.... Shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses." Heavy stuff.
Written by Conor McPherson. Directed by Joe Adler. With John Bixler, Deborah L. Sherman, Ricky Waugh, and Gregg Weiner. Through July 20. GableStage at The Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-446-1116, www.gablestage.com
It's difficult to say what, if anything, this quote has to do with Conor McPherson's Shining City. On an intuitive level, the two things seem unrelated: Shining City is set in modern Dublin, which is a long way from 17th-century Massachusetts. But Shining City is mysterious; you leave the theater uncertain of what you saw and what it's supposed to mean. When you get to sorting it all out, decoding its name seems as promising a tack as any. The name is arguably relevant, though we'll get to that in a sec.
First, some bad news: If it catches you in the wrong mood, Shining City can be almost as dull as it is mysterious, though this isn't GableStage's fault. Shining City takes place entirely in the office of a rather inept therapist named Ian, and like all such places, it contains a lot more talk than action. The GableStagers do their best with the chatter. Ricky Waugh, who plays Ian, comes through clearly as a well-meaning dude with too much on his mind. Hearing his clients confess their inadequacies and misdeeds, he keeps his voice calm and solicitous even as his eyes seem to be screaming, "Dear Christ! How'd the world get so fucked up? I want off!"
The client most responsible for that wild-eyed look is a guy named John, played with soulful naturalism by Gregg Weiner. Weiner talks and talks, and the play's most powerful moments arise through his fumbling explanation of how his marriage crumbled, resulting in his wife's painful death.
Ian has little to say to John; when Weiner is onstage, it's easy to forget anybody else is there. For long moments, it also becomes possible to forget you're merely hearing his story told instead of seeing it enacted. Weiner is a master of pauses, breaths, rueful chuckles, and character voices that stab at mirth before slipping into boneless regret.
His character treated his wife miserably, and she croaked before he had a chance to make things right. It's the kind of thing that can haunt a man, and John is indeed haunted: His wife's corpse has taken to hanging around his house in the middle of the night.
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Why did McPherson have to bring the supernatural into it? The play barely hints at this or anything else. Shining City is the slow revelation of linked situations orbiting around no particular center, and it's disorienting. Ian himself is having relationship trouble — in one scene he gets into a heart-wrenching tiff with his girlfriend, played by Deborah Sherman — and for a moment you think maybe this is what the play is all about. No dice. Sherman won't show up again, which is a shame: Her 15-or-so minutes onstage get right into the blood and guts of what dissolving relationships look and feel like. The only other living person to make an appearance is a male hooker in a silly wig, played by John Bixler with a characterization so unsexy he seems to be channeling Keith Moon circa 1979.
Bixler and Sherman each have one scene, Weiner has three, and Ricky Waugh's Ian somehow stays onstage for all five scenes without ever really seeming like the star.
This is almost certainly intentional. As John, Weiner is playing a man whose worst mistakes are behind him. He can look back, with the perfect vision of hindsight, and know for sure what he should have done then and can do now. In the world of Shining City, this somehow makes him free and unencumbered in a way Ian cannot be. Ian, with his girl alive and healthy and the future a big white mystery looming ahead, is too baffled by the present to see or understand much of anything. All he can see is John, who, in a therapist's office, is himself a kind of city on a hill. As John Winthrop tried to explain, you can't hide on a hill — everything you do will either bless you or curse you. And John is cursed. Ian's job is to learn, as Reagan didn't, that the city isn't shining, but haunted.