by Carol Rocamora
If the true test of theatre today is directing a play on-line, then Ciarán O’Reilly is a wizard.
Somehow, he has managed to stage The Weir, Conor McPherson’s haunting tale of the terminally lonely – by directing 5 actors in 5 different locations and making it appear as if they’re together on the same set! At least that’s how it looks on your computer screen. Don’t ask me how – that’s O’Reilly’s secret. It’s what the French call a “trompe oeil” (a trick of the eye), and he’s done it.
There they are, Brendan, Jack, and Jim – in a remote country pub far from Dublin (authentically designed by Charlie Corcoran), huddled together on a stormy winter night, “having a small one” or “a pint.” The pub owner Brendan (Tim Ruddy) is pouring for his regulars – Jack, a local garage owner (Dan Butler) and timid Jim, his assistant (John Keating). It’s a ritual they’ve been practicing every night, it seems, for years, these three who have grown up together – drinking, bantering, gabbing, and telling stories. Judging from the photos on the pub walls of themselves, their parents and their friends, there’s a lot of history there.
McPherson, a writer of tremendous skill, sets the scene so subtly, so carefully, that you hardly notice you’re being drawn into a dark vortex. Outside, the wind may be whistling and howling, but in the tiny pub room the atmosphere is warm and safe… so far. The pace is light and easy, the conversation is circular and repetitive, and the audience settles in as if we’re having a pint with them, too. There’s a momentary infusion of energy when two newcomers enter – Finbar, a local real estate agent (Sean Gormly), and Valerie (Amanda Quaid), the only woman in the cast. Finbar has just sold Valerie a home near the pub, and wants to introduce her to the neighborhood. They too settle into the slow rhythm, falling into the gentle trap that McPherson is so skillfully setting for us all.
For the stories they are telling are not ordinary stories – they’re “ghost stories.” “The area is steeped in old folklore,” Finbar explains to Valerie, as Jack begins a story of what happened once on “the fairy road,” near to where this pub is located. Next, Jack proceeds to tell the kind of tale that has “Made in Ireland” stamped all over it – a dark winter night, a knock on the door, a woman on the stairs, a scream, and so on. Then it’s Jim’s turn, and his tale is darker and creepier – a graveyard setting, a strange man who looks just the corpse, and so on.
All the while, Brendan keeps pouring another round, and Valerie is so quiet that you know something isn’t quite right. And it isn’t. When it comes time for Valerie to tell her story, then you get to the heart of this play about the meaning of ghosts and the visions of the lonely and brokenhearted.
The ensemble is superb. As Jack, Dan Butler paints a portrait of the blustery gabber who turns out to be the most vulnerable of the lot. As his assistant Jim, John Keating is his perfect foil. As the taciturn bartender Brendan, Tim Ruddy is the stoic amongst them. Sean Gormley’s Finbar flashes a flamboyant charm. Amanda Quaid’s Valerie wears a veil of silence, until she lifts it and reveals a pain so deep that it’s safer to look away.
This scene – full of atmosphere and feeling – is conjured up by playwright McPherson, a master storyteller himself. You fall under the spell of his beautiful, lyrical writing, graced with humor and heartbreak.
“Hope is all, in the end,” says Jack, after Valerie’s devastating revelation, before they all disperse for the evening. In the end, The Weir is a haunting play about companionship and compassion – just what we all need to get us through our stormy nights.
The Weir, by Conor McPherson, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, streamed on the Irish Repertory Theater website.
Next: Love,Noel! with Steve Ross and KT Sullivan, August 11 to 15