The Keegan Theatre’s new production of The Weir grabs you from the start, almost before you know it. Bright yet dark, simple yet complex, emotional yet cerebral, Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s beautifully sculpted miniature masterpiece explores, with a deceptively light touch, the darker recesses of the human heart which, as Blaise Pascal observed, knows things that the mind cannot comprehend.A hit at its 1997 London premiere, The Weir carried its success to New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre in 1999, helping cement his current stature as one of Ireland’s most talented younger playwrights. The Keegan Theatre’s production carries on the play’s award-winning tradition, dropping its incredibly-talented cast into a cozy, intimate rural Irish pub and letting the players take it from there.
For The Weir is that kind of play. There’s no plot to speak of. Instead, we meet and greet a small entourage of very real working-stiff characters who assemble at a local watering hole somewhere near the coast of County Sligo on a proverbial dark and stormy night just prior to our current century.
It’s Brendan’s (Jon Townson’s) pub really, but regular patron Jack (Kevin Adams), owner of a tiny local auto repair shop, lets himself in first, tossing down a quick one before the owner enters from his adjoining house. After exchanging pleasantries, they’re joined by Jack’s friend and sometimes associate Jim (David Jourdan).
The three proceed to swap lies and gossip, mostly about small hotel owner Finbar (Mick Tinder) who’s allegedly making a pass at Valerie (Susan Marie Rhea), a recently arrived and somewhat mysterious 30-something Dubliner. And wouldn’t you know? Just when your curiosity is most aroused, who should arrive next but Finbar and Valerie themselves.
And then…nothing happens. Or at least that’s what it looks like.
Jack, Jim, and Finbar, firmly in the grasp of an introspective late middle age and fueled by Brendan’s ample stock of adult beverages, start spinning fantastic stores about real people who inevitably encounter ghosts, spirits, and Irish fairies. It’s the sort of thing that the Irish have become legendary for, compelling storytelling that may or may not be true, at least in a literal sense.
And it’s key that this tale-telling unfolds in the mists of Ireland’s rural West. Many pockets of the West, unlike the hipper enclaves of Dublin and Cork, remain places where Irish, not English, can be a villager’s first language and where a superstitious fear of willful, uncompromising Irish fairies can remain very much alive, recent Celtic Tigers and Eurobank bailouts notwithstanding.
But why plunk down your fast-depreciating dollars for a ticket if you’re only going to hear a few oulde fellows blathering on for an hour and a half without intermission? The answer: that’s the magic of McPherson’s genius. The Weir’s plot, such as it is, is not linear. It’s a random interweaving of lives re-lived in flashback. It’s a journey not toward success or failure, not toward excitement, cataclysm, or tragedy. Rather, it’s a surprisingly thoughtful inner quest for peace, meaning, and understanding.
With Brendan acting as a sort of master-of-ceremonies, McPherson’s three middle-aged gents—Ireland’s own aging Boomers—spin stories of personal regret and loss, mourning those paths not taken, kidding about their own obliviousness, and sometimes writing things off as the work of supernatural beings, much as some of us might blame strange or coincidental happenings on the intervention of space aliens.
It’s all hilariously funny, awkwardly vulgar, and then, without warning, brooding and sad, too. Throughout it all, Valerie, the outsider, remains mostly a spectator. But then, her own tongue perhaps loosened a bit by a pint of Harp, she uncorks her own poignant, heartbreaking story—one that unintentionally forces the local amigos to rethink their own seemingly pointless lives.
It’s very sneaky. The central point of the play is to emphasize the absolute importance of self-discovery as a means toward salvation of the human spirit. Yet paradoxically, this almost quasi-religious examination of conscience is arrived at via tall tales that morph into parables, personal mini-autobiographies that laugh at what once was and mourn what might have been.
Trickier still, The Weir is also a parable of the human comedy as parsed by gender. It’s a surprisingly revealing lesson on how men often dwell on the surface of things, fearing the pain of genuine self-knowledge, while women frequently can’t escape the truths of life by any means.
An outsider to the community, Valerie inadvertently opens up new emotional vistas for the locals, transforming them, very subtly, from rough, good-natured blusterers into very human fellows who want to help, don’t know how, but give it a rough and tumble try anyway. Indifferent, even hostile, to women, at least on the surface, the men quickly succumb to Valerie’s humanity, allowing them to find elements of their better selves. McPherson, unlike many contemporary playwrights, grasps the fact that spiritual enlightenment and renewal can happen anywhere, at any time, at any age, and with the least provocation.
And that, perhaps, is the meaning of the play’s somewhat enigmatic title. A “weir” is a small river-dam, perhaps only a dozen feet high that’s meant to impound water for various uses and perhaps serve as a break in the water’s flow during the spring floods. (Our local Great Falls dam is just such a structure.) Like water trapped behind a weir, the hidden lives and emotions of McPherson’s aging Boomers, unexpectedly liberated by the outsider Valerie, finally surge over the obstacle to renew their long-delayed search for self-knowledge and inner peace.
The Weir is thus art, entertainment, and a spiritual quest all rolled up into one deceptively simple bundle. It’s all about people and how they work, about character not plot. The Keegan cast gets this in toto. Each player inhabits his or her character to the point where the actor actually disappears into McPherson’s heightened reality. They’re all exquisitely good at what they do with not a weak performance among them. An added bonus: the actors’ Irish accents range from good to impeccable, yet are easily understandable to visiting Yanks.
These days, a great many Washington area productions are good ones. But this distinguished, carefully sculpted production is a great one. The magic happens.
McPherson supplies the quietly brilliant stories and dialogue. The cast passionately embodies his characters. Director Mark A. Rhea, in turn, deftly guides the stage action, never getting in the way of allowing his characters to quietly evolve. And set designer George Lucas’ quaint yet contemporary Irish pub becomes a suitably homey place to unburden a lonely soul, even as those cold and lonely Atlantic winds howl metaphorically outside.
Don’t miss it.
by Conor McPherson
Directed by Mark A. Rhea
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission