The Weir,by Conor McPherson. Directed by Aaron Holbritter. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Monica Brady, John Wallace, Donald Dolan; photo: Daniel Region
"It's more the luck . . . the something!"
Playwright Conor McPherson made his name, back in 1997, with the play, THE WEIR, which won several awards including the very impressive Olivier Award for best new play. It's original company transferred to New York where the play did well but won no medals. The title is intriguing, frankly, as the concept of the weir is rather unknown in this country. It literally indicates a crude sort of dam used to alter the course of water but not severely restrict it. It can be as simple as a board fence or a net. It is used to catch salmonids as they return upstream. The weir can become the point where garbage collects and is removed for the safety of all. In the case of this play the weir is a pub, a local, in a small town northwest of Sligo, Ireland, a rural locale with a local weir on its own small river.
This local is owned and operated by Brendan, a man in his early thirties, who inherited the place, along with a lot of land, from his folks. In this production he is obsessed with cleanliness, constantly polishing table tops and brooming up dirt that cannot be seen by anyone else in the room. He is single, lives in a mild fear of visitation by his sisters, and he drinks short ones when they are bought by someone else.
His bar is visited nightly by at least two local men, Jack, who is considerably older, single, a mechanic witha passion for dark beer and fine whisky and Jim, a bit younger, single, mother-dominated and professionally a handyman. The men are friends and their banter is easy and often identical from day to day. They dislike a renegade native who has moved to the city of Sligo and operates as a landlord and realtor, Finbar by name. Finbar has rented a cottage out to a woman named Valerie whom he brings to the local to meet the locals. The men are not impressed with Finbar's symbolic conquest - a woman of thirty or so who drinks white wine and smiles too often and often at nothing in particular. Still, they are men and they are out to impress the newcomer with their wit and their rudeness and their camaraderie. Finbar, the only one of them who is married, has an edge but he loses that quickly to Brendan and Jim and even to older, drunker Jack.
When the banter turns to storytelling and the local legends of fairies and ghosts become the topic it is left to Valerie to shake the others with her own ghostly tale.
Ultimately very little happens in this play. No one changes or grows or suffers. Nothing changes at all, really. Finbar goes home to his wife; Jim goes home to his mother; Brendan gives Jack and Valerie lifts home. It is hoped that the next day the man will come to fix the tap and to repair the ladies room plumbing. End of play.
But the idea of the weir - outside, across the road - doing its work just as the forces of alcohol and honesty do their similar work in the pub pervades the play. Filtering realities and letting things flow at an easy pace is what the playwright is concerned with here and he does it with language and imagery that is curiously captivating. While the work may not satisfy the qualities of a play it certainly engages and entertains and leaves its audience with things to think about, to chat about and to wonder about. For a ninety-four minute one-act with five characters in ordinary clothing that is terrific.
Jack, who not the main character, is at the center of it all. Donald Dolan plays him with a hesitant nature propped up by a distinctly vicious wit. He often has the zinger in a conversation and he uses it expeditiously. Dolan has the look, the voice and the movements of a slightly inebriated garage mechanic down pat. As he navigates the bar, tells his mysterious tale and eyes the others in the room he becomes a curious combination of other actors in other venues playing men who are similar to Jack. Dolan's voice is his most distinctive asset, an Irish tenor voice with a lilt to it that never wears on your ears. If he should burst into song, into "Danny-Boy" say, it would seem just as natural as his reach for another drink.
Jim, his friend and drinking companion, is played nicely and conservatively by Neal Berntson in an over-large sweater that brings color into the proceedings. His character's nature is reclusive and distant and the director keeps him away from the others in the local. When he relates his tale of horror it is from a distance even when he moves about the stage. His solo turn never dominates the center of attention and Berntson plays this with complete authority and reality.
John Wallace gives Finbar an easy sophistication that is obviously assumed. His character so easily falls back into the life of the local that his fancier clothes and his easy self-assurance with Valerie instantly become a costume put on by a man who should know better. Wallace does very well with this character, conveying both the held-down belief in the supernatural and the obvious reliance on his Irish heritage to take in all the tales and live with them without regret.
Monica Brady brings a peculiar reality to Valerie. She is demure and yet forward. She is shy and yet bold. When she takes up the concept of the ghost story and reveals her reasons for moving away from her big city life to take up residence in this rural region she is mesmerizing. Her smile comes too often to be real and so it almost never has the effect that Valerie assumes it will have with these men. Brady's performance here, her first with this company, brings a very honest portrayal to the local and this local stage.
Jerry Greene's Brendan is a curious interpretation. Never completely in control of his own space, the pub, he is also never one to take center stage and hold his own with the other men. Still, he has a disturbing way of pulling our attention as he listens and responds, and intensely takes in all he hears. This is just fine as his character emerges at the end as more the take-charge person he ought to be. Like the play itself, Brendan is a curiosity rather than a reality. He is, I would think, the human weir, self-created for the purpose of filtering what flows from the others.
Aaron Holbritter has kept this play static, allowing each actor his turn and providing an easy visual of humanity listening and responding while drinking more and more alcohol. As director he has used the incredible setting created by Bob Walker and Sam Reilly, for all its worth. Each part of the stage becomes a picture frame in which someone can be viewed while revealing darker, internalized truths. What at first seems too stand-still, sit-still, non-combative and unfulfilling ultimately becomes pointed uses of personal spaces for the purpose of self-revelation. The play is so much a monologue drama with conversation interludes and Holbritter and the cast make it more a play about those filters that people need to use to communicate at all.
Max Lagonia's lighting design is about the best I've seen on this stage in a long while and the simple costumes by Cathy Lee-Visscher and Joanne Maurer are more like clothing than costumes. The physical production for this play is brilliant and straightforward and with this company of players makes for a very quick hour and a half of comic-drama, for there are laughs abounding as there should be in an Irish play.
This is certainly a worthwhile production of a play (and I use that word advisedly) that probably won't see a lot of local exposure. Let your curiosity get the best of you and step out to the local for a dose of late 20th century Irish reality.
The Weir plays weekends through February 7 at the Ghent Playhouse on Route 66 in Ghent, NY. For information and tickets call I-800-838-3006 or go on line to www.ghentplayhouse.org.