The Washington area’s unofficial Totally Irish Theater March Madness continues unabated this week, aided and abetted by Scena’s new production of Conor McPherson’s problem comedy The Weir. Now playing at the H Street Playhouse DC’s increasingly trendy Atlas Theater District, Scena’s current offering is the second iteration of McPherson’s play to hit the boards here over the last month or so, with the Keegan Theatre’s highly-regarded production opening first. In the immortal words of “Cheech” Marin, both productions are “the same, only different.”
The Weir is a play that in many ways follows the lead of G. B. Shaw: put a bunch of interesting, somewhat disparate characters on stage and let them talk. In this kind of play, plot is not exactly irrelevant, but it’s secondary at best, arising in many instances from the interesting gabfest itself that’s occurring on stage. Each character’s quirks, likes and dislikes, and touchiness on various issues serve to slowly but relentlessly reveal hidden life secrets.
Appropriately enough, The Weir takes place entirely within a rural pub, somewhere near Sligo town in Ireland’s still fairly wild West. Pub owner Brendan (Eric Lucas), who runs the marginal establishment at the behest of his wealthier sisters, entertains a couple of middle-aged regulars, namely Jack (Gordon Fulton), who runs a local auto repair shop, and Jim (Barry McEvoy) who occasionally helps Jack out when he’s not caring for his aging but still feisty mum.
Eventually, local hotelier Finbar (Brian Mallon) shows up with a young Dublin woman named Valerie (Kerry Waters), which occasions some gossip and ribbing, as Finbar’s wife is not accompanying them. And then, the stories commence. Ghost stories. Good ones. Tales of Irish fairies and long-dead but still-troubled spirits who roam the earth. And it’s through these stories that we begin to learn of the primary characters’ hidden sorrows, fortunately with ample doses of humor tossed in to avoid a descent into lugubriousness.
The Weir—whose title alludes to a small local dam where, presumably, still waters run deep—is, in the end, a marvelous, funny, tearful visit with ordinary people who sometimes experience extraordinary lives. It’s witty, somber, quarrelsome, and true, and it needs experienced actors to bring it to life.
Fortunately for area theatergoers, both the Keegan’s and Scena’s productions are really very good. (I’ve reviewed Keegan’s here.) But they are, as we’ve already indicated, different, ranging from the sets to the actors to the over all directorial touch.
The Keegan’s Church Street Theatre pub felt older, homier, and—via more pronounced sound effects—stormier, creaking, as it was, with the wind and the tiredness of the time-darkened old wood paneling that defined its limits. Scena’s pub seems to be of more recent vintage, sporting cheaper paneling, a somewhat more modern bar, and sporting an oldish CRT TV on the high shelf, a nice touch reflecting the play’s time-period just a couple of years before today’s flat-panel monitors became all the rage.
The Keegan’s cast of characters was a bit more cantankerous, perhaps a bit more authentic old coastal Irish. But Scena’s characters seem a bit more modernized, a little less quick to flash temper, a little more cautious in their reactions.
The character of Jack is the proverbial ball of fire in both productions. As portrayed by the Keegan’s Kevin Adams, Jack was a high decibel alpha male and a bit of a bully. Scena’s Jack, as portrayed by Gordon Fulton, was a bit more subdued, though still feisty, looking very much the part with his round, jolly Irish face and twirly white moustache. While spinning a good yarn, Fulton’s life-of-the-party Jack nonetheless proves a complex character, shadowed by sorrows and regrets that he eventually reveals, proving our initial suspicions.
Keegan’s Jim, as played by David Jourdan, was the embodiment of a rough but dutiful working stiff. Scena’s Jim, as portrayed by Barry McEvoy, is the strong, silent type, slow to reveal his inner self, he’s cautious, careful, but capable of great introspection and surprising depth. It’s an endearing performance that sneaks up on you before you are aware of it.
Keegan’s Finbar, played by Mick Tinder, was loud, swaggering, and obnoxious, an obvious nouveaux riche, more or less, whose bluster showed he still had something to prove. Scena’s Brian Mallon takes an entirely different tack on the character. Yes, he’s a bit forward, too, at the outset. But he’s easily embarrassed, somehow more eager to make peace than Tinder’s rough-and-tumble Finbar.
The Valeries in each production proved entirely different. The play’s dialogue clearly indicates that Valerie is 30-something, and in Keegan’s production it was clear that Susan Marie Rhea fell into that category. Scena’s Valerie, Kerry Waters, is a bit beyond that—and we mean no disrespect because we are, too. But the age difference here creates an entirely different dynamic, different expectations, and different psychological outcomes.
The central tragedy that Valery encounters is flavored by the age of the character. We might expect that a younger Valerie, as in the Keegan production, would be blindsided and completely confused by this tragedy, too early in life yet to have any experience in dealing with such a thing. Indeed, that’s how Susan Rhea portrayed her character, evoking a sudden, unexpected paternal reaction by the pub’s patrons.
A more experienced Valerie—as in Kerry Waters’ portrayal—is more a contemporary of the pub’s male denizens. Their reaction, too, is a bit paternalistic. But it’s also more halting, more subdued, more respecting of her space. Scena’s Valerie has, in a sad, yet magical way, become one of the boys by telling her story. They treat her with kid gloves, in their way, while also silently admitting her to their own version of what Jack London once called the “Fellowship of Pain.”
In the end, it’s this treatment of Valery that gives the Keegan and Scena versions of The Weir their distinctly different looks and feels. Keegan’s production was crisper, more sharply tailored, its characters bigger than life. Scena’s production is, if you will, a kinder, gentler one where sorrow runs deep and where humorous avoidance is at times the only answer.
The difference is confirmed by the conduct of Brendan, the pubmeister in both productions. Keegan’s Jon Towson played Brendan a bit younger and seemed content, after the opening scene, to remain on the sidelines of the action. Scena’s Eric Lucas, however—while still limited by the small number of lines McPherson has allocated this character—somehow seemed more an equal to the others, more of a master-of-ceremonies, fulfilling his duty to keep the momentum going once it had gotten started. And he, too, like the others, seemed to carry his own past and present burdens graciously even though they remained heavy as well.
It’s rare one gets a chance to see two entirely different versions of the same marvelous play within the period of roughly a month, but that’s what we’ve had a chance to experience with The Weir. Keegan’s Weir was, from a purely theatrical view, funnier, more boisterous, more purely entertaining, although the playwright’s message still came through loud and clear.
As directed by Robert McNamara, Scena’s Weir is in many ways a deeper, more literary interpretation of the same material. It breathes deeper, older, sadder, wiser. It’s a different kind of marvel entirely.
But perhaps the greatest marvel of all is McPherson’s play. That it can withstand two quite-different approaches and remain valid, meaningful, and entertaining while remaining thought provoking is a tribute to the skill of the dramatist. And it’s a tribute as well to the enduring humanity of the lonely, neglected rural characters McPherson paints with such affection, skill, and understanding.
by Conor McPherson
Directed by Robert McNamara
Produced by Scena
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission