Theater Review - Howling wind

The Weir enthralls with old-school ghost stories

Irish barflies savor the bouquet of Guinness, settle into their favorite chairs and generally take their sweet time setting the scene when The Weir begins. Theatre Gael’s production starts slowly and deliberately, in no particular hurry to hook us.

Once the characters start swapping ghost stories, though, The Weir really clicks. Playwright Conor McPherson and director Montica Pes appreciate how spooky tales can raise goose pimples, but they also take The Weir in disturbing directions that aren’t so easy to dismiss.

On a dark, blustery night in the Western Ireland hills, the regulars gather at a tiny, weather-beaten pub. Senior publican Jack (Jayson Smith) cracks the most jokes. Soft-spoken barman Brendan (Scott Poythress) drinks along with his customers. Handyman Jim (Winslow Thomas) struggles to complete his sentences. The only thing that distinguishes this night from any other is that Finbar, a local hotelier and wheeler-dealer, plans to bring a young woman by for a drink.

McPherson piques our interest in Finbar and his guest, and their arrival shifts the action to a higher gear. Sharply dressed with matching tie and handkerchief, Al Stilo relishes making Finbar a loud, preening, would-be alpha male. Though married, Finbar squires Valerie (Claire Bronson) around like a status symbol and creates a charged dynamic in the bar that combines envy, hostility and friendship that goes way back.

Valerie shows no interest in being Finbar’s chippie. Friendly and sharp, she gradually hints that she moved to the country to escape difficulties in Dublin. Valerie’s questions about the area’s history spark the old stories about things that go bump in the night.

Jack spins the first yarn with gusto as he recounts a rural legend about a house built on a “fairy road,” conjuring up dangerous, old-world spirits. Finbar recalls an episode from his youth about a neighborhood family that faced an apparition. Jim describes his first-hand experience digging a mysterious grave in the lashing rain. Finbar dismisses the stories as “old cod,” but each moves into darker, more personal territory than the one before.

Pes and her cast smartly exploit McPherson’s device to have the storytellers reveal hidden aspects of their characters. Thus jovial Jack shows his authority, boorish Finbar his sensitivity, and tongue-tied Jim his cleverness and gift of gab. The stories give each actor a chance to command the stage, although it’s hard to ignore that Smith, despite gray touch-ups to his beard, is about a generation younger than Jack. Nevertheless, Smith confidently captures Jack’s private fears and his public persona, particularly the self-conscious theatricality he brings to the pub stories.

Bartender Brendan remains in the background, with Poythress bringing little force to an already underwritten role. But the Theatre Gael production’s most glaring absence is its lack of wind effects. The characters talk about the gale-force wind just outside the door until it becomes a crucial part of the play’s environment, yet we never hear anything. It’s as if they forgot to cast one of the speaking parts.

Otherwise, Pes makes the most of the script’s thematic surprises. At first The Weir’s ending feels like an anti-climax, but it makes you re-evaluate the action and the implications underneath the stories. McPherson returns to the image of people staring into an empty fireplace, as if regarding their own mortality. The Weir suggests how easily people can end up as ghosts in their own lives, a prospect far more frightening than visitors from the spirit world.

The Weir offers more than just Irish ghost stories worthy of Halloween, conveying also the fears of personal tragedies and lives unlived. While the cheerful ribbing and warmth seemed forced at The Weir’s beginning, it proves genuinely convincing and comfortable by the play’s conclusion. All that Theatre Gael’s The Weir really lacks is a mighty wind.