Floods of emotion in ‘The Weir’

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How it’s New York: Irish Repertory Theatre is one of the best Off-Broadway theatres in this city of great theatres. And people hanging out in a pub? irishexaweircoverWhat would New Yorkers know about that? (snicker). “The Weir” runs through July 7 at Irish Rep, 132 W. 22nd St.
How it’s Irish: The play is set in rural Ireland, and shows us Irish banter among the stories of the Gentle Folk.

An earlier version of this review was first published in Irish Examiner USA, Tuesday, May 28.

There are hauntings in “The Weir.” They aren’t all from ghosts.

The most haunting story in Conor McPherson’s “The Weir,” which opened last week at Irish Repertory Theatre, is not a ghost story. The character telling it says afterwards that it isn’t.

But his vision of despair is more chilling than any spooky story.

It’s the ghostly memory of a love affair that that haunts a lonely man. The man experiences this nightmare every day. It’s indelible for him, and for the audience.

“The Weir” is a tricky play. When I first saw it in 1997, in London, with its original cast (including Jim Norton and Brendan Coyle), I didn’t understand what the fuss was about. I had heard the play described as a thriller. I kept waiting for something to happen. McPherson writes in the published script’s afterword that a woman fainted during one of the stories.

That story, told by the one woman in the play, is terrible and frightening, but it’s scary in the spooky, undefined way, not “zombies are coming down the road, grab a pickaxe” way.

Seeing “The Weir” at Irish Repertory Theatre, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, her story was terrifying and sad. I cried nearly from the moment it began until the end of the play.

But you have to relax into McPherson’s 90-minute drama. What “happens” is that four men at a pub talk with “blow-in” Valerie (Tessa Klein). She’s just bought a house in town, and Finbar (Sean Gormley), her realtor, has brought her in to meet the locals.

The stories that are told reveal a hunger for human connection that is as powerful as anything in Beckett.
Tessa Klein (Valerie), Dan Butler (Jack) and Billy Carter (Brenden), @Carol Rosegg

Tessa Klein (Valerie), Dan Butler (Jack) and Billy Carter (Brenden), @Carol Rosegg

Once you know that nothing extraordinary is going to “happen,” “The Weir” can wash over you. The play gently leads you into darker realms.

I never forgot that original production, although I thought I didn’t like it. Funny how that works.

“The Weir” has a slow start: we open on 50-something Jack (Dan Butler) letting himself into the pub, such a regular that he pours his own

drink. He’s annoyed that something is wrong with the Guinness tap. When youngish owner Brenden (Billy Carter) explains that he can’t switch the taps because of the Harp drinkers, Jack scoffs, “Harp drinkers.” That gets a laugh. There’s another one when slick businessman Finbar enters and asks for a Harp.

Anybody who’s spent time in a small pub, with Irish men, will recognize them here. McPherson’s little moments grounds the play. For example, Valerie orders a glass of white wine – funny in itself. Brenden has to go upstairs to his house to get a bottle, and when pours, he fills the highball glass to the brim, though it’s not beer. When Jim drinks a “small one,” he pours water into it from a little pitcher. These little touches might make you homesick.

The set-up is simple: A young woman from Dublin has bought a house in a rural part of Ireland, northwest Leitrim or Sligo. At the pub, Valerie meets Jim (John Keating), shy and still living with his mother, and blustery Jack (Dan Butler), as well as Brenden.

The men don’t set out to tell her “ghost stories,” but stories about the town. They wander into the spooky stories because the house she bought has a frightening tale about the Gentle Folk connected to it: Jack tells a story about the woman who lived there hearing knocking, low down to the ground, and eventually we learn that the house was on a “Fairy Road” which led down to the river.

The stories are spooky the way the actual ghost stories you might have experienced are spooky – they are undefined, moody, open-ended, almost unreal. What was out there? You’re not sure. You don’t want to know. And the Gentle Folk are terrifying, not moppets with wings. What makes them so scary, we’re not even quite sure.

The river now has a weir on it, which regulates the water that supplies electric current. Some reviewers have said the play’s title refers to the

John Keating (Jim), Dan Butler (Jack) and Sean Gormley (Finbar), @Carol Rosegg

John Keating (Jim), Dan Butler (Jack) and Sean Gormley (Finbar), @Carol Rosegg

flood of emotions that are unleashed when the stories come out. The title also may refer to the need for light against the darkness, and the power of the dark that wanes with the power of electricity. Jack tells Valerie that when the weir was going up, the woman who owned her house reported knocking then,

“And fierce load of dead birds all in the hedge and all this.”

O’Reilly artfully gets motion into the play by having the characters go for another drink, or warm themselves at the heater. When they focus on a storyteller, the audience naturally does too. Jim ends up telling a ghost story when Finbar (Sean Gormley)  mentions a wedding at his hotel, and Jim remembers the bride’s brother, who once dug a grave with him – for a man he’ll later discover was a pedophile.

The way McPherson has his characters wander into their storytelling is delicate. They don’t mean to scare Valerie. It’s almost as though they don’t want to tell the stories. But the stories come out.

Valerie is all ears. She has a story of her own. Her daughter, Niamh, who died in a swimming accident, always heard knocking, and thought there were people in the walls. It gets worse.

O’Reilly artfully gets motion into the play by having the characters go for another drink, or warm themselves at the heater. When characters focus on a storyteller, the audience does too. He also pulls each nuance of shifting alliances in the play from his cast of excellent actors. The little rivalry between Finbar and Jack, that escalates into a quarrel, settled by who gets to buy whom a drink, exemplifies the degree of realism here. O’Reilly’s subtlety and precision are seamless.

Sean Gormley (Finbar), Tessa Klein (Valerie) and Dan Butler (Jack) @Carol Rosegg

Sean Gormley (Finbar), Tessa Klein (Valerie) and Dan Butler (Jack) @Carol Rosegg

Irish Rep regular John Keating shows a Jim who has a gentleness about him, and more brains than he quite realizes – he picks horses with a system and often wins. His is a quiet, rich portrayal. Gormley’s Finbar has more sensitivity than he likes to let on, which makes him lovable. Carter’s charismatic Brenden connects with Valerie, and complains over the way the others abandon him when “The Germans,” tourists who may not even be German, come in, showing us the loneliness and warmth within him as well. We hope that he will avoid the fate of Jack, who never married.

Butler’s Jack is as cantankerous as he calls himself. He’s funny and full of life. I wished his terrible story were told a bit more quietly, as a contrast to his bravado. It was affecting anyway. Klein, as Valerie, quietly wins the hearts of everyone onstage, and off of it. She’s completely natural, and completely touching.

Charlie Corcoran’s set has beams that put the pub in a kind of picture frame, which enhances the feel of spooky intimacy. Michael Gottlieb’s lighting design quietly ebbs and flows with the mood of the stories.

Irish Rep’s production of “The Weir” is devastating and heartening. The storytelling is its own form of healing, in the play and outside of it. They are more effective than electric lights in the way they banish the darkness.

This is what “happens.” And it’s more than enough.

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