At the heart of memorable conversation is the individual’s attempt to express the inexpressible or unknowable. Regardless of how “connected,” “communal” and “networked” one may be, no two people perceive and understand events the same way. It is a great irony that in the telling of an experience, contrary to the hope of the storyteller, the tale may be further removed from being known and felt by the listeners. Human experience is by its very nature singular and unique. Individuals know this, but nevertheless keep on trying to explain themselves to understand what is uncertain. This is one of the seminal ideas of Conor McPherson’s brilliant The Weir currently at the DR2 Theatre in New York City.
The Weir unfolds the unusual conversations between three men and a woman who, on one eerie night in an out-of-the-way Irish pub form a bonded community of individuals who relate their personal stories. The pub in a fictional town once reputed to be the locale of a fairy road, named for the dammed up river and associated hydroelectric plant that supplies power to the surrounding area of this rural section of Ireland.
Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly for the Irish Repertory Theatre, this production of McPherson’s award-winning play smiles with an easy accessibility and fluidity, but delivers a subtle, stark punch. The set, sound effects, music and lighting are spot-on, relaying the play’s undercurrents, twists and ironies. The wind is howling outside the pub’s balmy atmosphere, ironic and atypical of the usual setting of a ghost story gathering.
There is the haunting, melancholic music in the opening sequence, reaffirming the sad lonely strain in each of the characters despite their best attempts to overcome it with drink and liveliness. There is the absence of atmospheric darkness in this well-lit, affable-looking, typical Irish pub which betrays the dark undertones of the ghostly stories each character tells. In the hands of director O’Reilly and with the measured, beautifully balanced and powerfully understated portrayals by the ensemble, all elements combine to make this a memorable and poignant rendering of McPherson’s work.
McPherson opens his play with the bantering, good-natured interplay between Brendan, the owner of the pub (Tim Ruddy is appropriately taciturn, shy and hospitable), and garage mechanic owner Jack (a loquacious, humorous Paul O’Brien). We note that Jack is an obvious regular and friend for he helps himself to a drink before Brendan returns from doing something in the back. They are joined by the third bachelor, Jim (John Keating with a shy loneliness, reticence and humor), who affirms Jack’s alpha male control of the situation.
Jim and Brendan allow Jack to hold sway in a dynamic that we understand is typical amongst these three who know each other well enough to ask about Jim’s mother who is old and as Jim says, “everything is going on her.” The actors express an admirable confidence and assurance. It’s as if we have been dropped down into this remote Irish pub and allowed to eavesdrop on the mundane importance of their daily lives to gauge who and where they are at this stage of their existence.
The dynamic shifts however, when mention is made of Finbar, an entrepreneur they’ve known for ages, who is bringing a women up from Dublin to familiarize her with the people, sites and neighborhoods so she will feel less lonely in her stay in one of the well-known area houses. Jack’s humor grows more edgy and his speculations about Finbar, a married man, and the woman become riper and pointed in anticipation of meeting her. His bachelor friends are ready listeners and provide grist for his humor as we divine that perhaps Jack, Jim and Brendan are rueful about their state of loneliness sans a female presence in their lives.
From the mention of “the woman” to her entrance onstage and introduction to the men, until the end of the production, the spirits take hold and weave an interesting spell between Valerie (Amanda Quaid’s portrayal is powerfully subtle, then riveting as she tells her story), and the men who each, on a superficial level, perform for her like male peacocks around a hen.
The transformation occurs gradually. Without warning, the elusive atmosphere in the well-lighted drinking place moves to a profound, more soulful and transcendent level as each man reveals his truer nature despite macho ego through his tale of a ghostly encounter. Caught up, they have forgotten male posturing as they speak to mostly male listeners.
However, this night, they are drawn out, for Valerie is listening as well. Her presence has made all the difference. It is in the telling of their supernatural experiences that they manage to touch a chord in her and in each other, though exactly what they are feeling and what they are expressing is finally uncertain and surely and completely unknowable.
Yet it is palpable, and it is enough. The dam breaks in Valerie so that she is freed to tell her own ghostly story which is like the others but more heartfelt and real and anguished, and frightening to its core. After she tells her story, the men will never see her quite the same way again. A humanity has been opened up for all of them to access that was not there before. In Valerie’s explanation and description of the past, of the regret and the sorrow, there is a comfort in the retelling, though the listeners try to grasp at a meaning which remains elusive.
After Valerie relates her supernatural story, we are haunted, as the men are out of discomfort and inability to do something, anything to rectify the situation, Jack tells a macabre ghost story that Finbar humorously brings judgment upon. The spell is broken and the informal gathering comes to a close. The veil that has been lifted descends upon them once more. However, all have grown somehow closer for the telling of the stories. But as to what precisely has happened, each would be at a loss to define or express. The moment where one is able to reflect and retrieve a revelation has passed. The characters will go about their lives until the next time at the pub, which will be different.
By the conclusion of this fine production, we recognize this well-lighted drinking place named for a dammed river and power plant (“The Weir”) has an allegorical significance. The stories of human experience flow and are blocked and release under powerful conditions, with the right people, if only for a time. The supernatural connection between the history of a place that can compel us in the present, like water merging from its streams into a river, is ephemeral. Though it exists, those that experience it are hard pressed to understand what has happened. There are only remnants of the light, and then the fog comes back and daily living resumes. Although the occurrence cannot be expressed so that others understand it completely, the need for expression compels the storyteller. It is that need which touches others for it exists in each one of us and compels us to make others listen. But the certainty of what is expressed is beyond us all.
This is a terrific production of The Weir. It will be running until August 23rd at the DR2 Theatre.