Conor McPheron’s 1997 play The Weir has proven durable and popular, mostly because it’s an easy play to explain and relate to: at its core, it’s about old friends drinking in a pub telling stories. Ghost stories. And at that level, the play—and especially the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival—is extremely effective. The theatre itself lends an air of intimacy to the production, and the intensity and attention paid to the four ghost monologues is astounding.
Presumably, Jack (Dan Butler) and Jim (John Keating), two working class Irishmen, drink at Brenden’s (Billy Carter) bar on a regular basis. They’ve continued to live in the rural Irish town of their birth and they don’t necessarily need to tell ghost stories from their youth. But tonight there are two interlopers in the bar—Finbar (Sean Gormley), a kid from the neighborhood who left and made his fortune elsewhere, is back in town. He’s brought Valerie (Tessa Klein), a woman from Dublin who is moving to the countryside for a little bit of peace and quiet. Because there are non-regulars in the bar, Jack and Jim finally have an audience, and upon a little bit of prompting from Valerie, Jack, Jim and Finbar all tell long, involved ghost stories. They think they’ve spooked the new lass, Valerie, but she’s really itching to tell a story of her own. These four ghost stories—which take the form of long monologues—are the emotional core of the production.
The Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival does an excellent job getting out of the way and letting the ghost stories reverberate. Alcohol and alcoholism are a major themes—as in most of Mr. McPherson’s work—and although the characters are drinking heavily, the staging never devolves into slapstick. Mr. Butler does an excellent job becoming visibly sloppier and more agitated as one pint turns into five, but he never stumbles or loses his composure. Special kudos to Charlie Cocoran, the scenic designer, who has recreated a pub so cosy you want to pull up a barstool. The set has several nice touches, including a working tap and a neon sign hanging on the wall. Leon Dobkowski, costume designer, also deserves credit for selecting the right mix of tweeds and shetland sweaters to swaddle the cast.
Valerie—played by the American Ms. Klein—doesn’t speak much in the early part of the play. She’s new to the pub. And during that period, her accent noticeably slips in and out of form. But when she gets to her extended, emotional monologue about the ghost of her daughter, she delivers the goods. Earlier in the play, while the boys were telling their stories, the other four actors were completely motionless on stage, which seemed a bit forced. But when Valerie delivers her story, she’s so transfixing that it feels right that a bunch of Irish alcoholics would forget to drink.
Sure, The Weir hints at heavy Irish themes—home and loss, pernicious alcoholism, the inherent spookiness of the countryside—but this production never seems like a drag. After every heavy moment, in true Irish fashion, there’s a joke, or an insult, or another round being bought. It’s not like these are exclusively Irish themes, either—drunks get together in bars around the world to tell supernatural stories—but they are Mr. McPherson’s themes, and the Irish Rep’s production is successful because director Ciarán O’Reilly never allows them to become too heavy handed. At its most basic level, The Weir is a fun play, and why shouldn’t it be? It’s about old friends, drinking at a bar, telling ghost stories.