NEW YORK—A pinch of tenderness, a morsel of warmth, a hint of spice, all combine to fuse into a delicious theatrical stew—a mix of contradictory, wholly human, experiences. Such is my take on the Irish Repertory Theatre’s current revival of Conor McPherson’s “The Weir.”
Under Ciaran O’Reilly’s unobtrusive but minutely detailed direction, a country pub in a small town not far from Dublin comes to teem with life.
The pub is an informal meeting place for a group of neighbors who have known each other all their lives. Proprietor Brendan (Tim Ruddy) is setting things up behind the bar as Jack (Paul O’Brien) enters.
A garage owner who bets the horses, Jack is happy tonight because he’s picked a winner, thanks to the advice of his buddy and sometime employee Jim (John Keating). Jim spends much of his time caring for a sick mother.
The three men, all single, pass their evenings downing stout and a “small” whiskey and gossiping about local doings.
This evening’s topic of interest is the imminent arrival of their most successful crony, Finbar (Sean Gormley), who’s made it bigger than any of them by moving to a larger town and going into real estate.
The only married man of the group, he’s been seen squiring about a woman down from Dublin, Valerie, (Mary McCann), who’s just bought an old house close to the pub.
When the pair soon appears, Jack launches, inappropriately it turns out, into a tale of Valerie’s new house. The house was rumored to have once been approached by fairies who wanted to enter it via their pathway known as “the fairy road.”
This tale, along with the drink, triggers stories from the other men, all of which hint at the supernatural, or hauntings, or ghosts. The men assure their listeners that the stories may not be factual; perhaps they’re the result of the viewers’ exhaustion, drink, or simply the Irish love of exercising their imagination.
As for Valerie, however, rather than upsetting her as the men had feared, the stories give her the courage to relate something that had recently happened to her—an event, sadly, that had provoked a deep sea change in her life.
Each character is distinct and distinctive at the hands of playwright McPherson, noted for his melding of the supernatural with reality. (He has illustrated this in his other plays, which include “Shining City” and “The Seafarer,” and which were, as was “The Weir,” seen on Broadway.)
As Finbar, Gormley plays somewhat the preening peacock. As the most financially successful of the group, he is dressed, almost ostentatiously, in a well-tailored light-colored suit and highly polished shoes that shine far beyond the confines of the dingy pub.
But Gormley combines Finbar’s sometime arrogance with a care for Valerie and what he senses of her inner sadness; his manners then bespeak of a good basic upbringing—indicating classic Irish elegance.
Ruddy’s is a difficult task: He demonstrates Brendan’s active listening—the mark of a good actor—his thoughts and feelings etched onto his face. But more, he conveys the sense of someone who has repressed personal desires and has suffered for them.
Keating, as Jim, always supplies authenticity. (This marks his 15th show at Irish Rep). His description of Jim’s graveyard misadventure is spine-tingling.
O’Brien as Jack exudes a lot of power and takes stage much of the time even though he is often surly and combative. Envious of Finbar’s success in life, Jack picks opportunities to verbally spar with the man (but makes up afterward). But when, late in the play, he relates his story of lost romance, it takes the viewer to a place of bittersweet nostalgia and creates unexpected sympathy for him.
Yet it is Valerie’s poignant story in the hands of Mary McCann that tears at one’s heartstrings. All the more so because McCann’s delivery is so simple and unadorned. Her deeply moving performance resonates long after one has left the theater.
In addition to the wonderful group of actors, the production boasts of a beautifully chosen production team, which makes this show exquisitely integrated in all respects.
Charlie Corcoran’s set seems like an actual pub lifted from the aul’ sod of Ireland, enhanced by Michael’s Gottlieb’s lighting and the unsettling, sometimes eerie, wind effects by Drew Levy.
Seldom given credit but so deserving in this case are the properties, or props, selected by Deirdre Brennan. What could more whet one’s thirst than to see side by side weathered earthenware jugs next to the brightly shining drinking glasses.
Then the framed old photographs hung on the faded, flowered wallpaper—the photos figure importantly in the play itself. Several characters point out photos to Valerie of themselves as youngsters and of their forebears. Also, a photo of the weir, a dam meant to modify the river’s pathway.
Costumes by Leon Dobkowski are “right on the money.” And all is coordinated splendidly by director O’Reilly.
The play brings unique gifts, not only the unusual element of otherworldliness, which is dealt with tangibly and is intriguing. But there is the unspoken subtext, the inner haunting, the pain that inhabits all of us at various times—the instances of regret, sorrow, loss, and longing. There is also deep friendship and love. Heart, and soul.
I believe it is for those feelings that “The Weir” makes its greatest mark, its greatest contribution to Theater (yes, with a capital T).
I can say with unchecked enthusiasm that this production, in its fusion of text with performance, is one of the finest productions I have seen in this or any season.
103 E. 15th St. (The Rep’s temporary home while its permanent home is being renovated)
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or Irishrep.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Sept. 6
Diana Barth publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. She may be contacted at email@example.com