by Catherine Macallister
At the intersection of natural and supernatural is a rural Irish pub where the lives of five individuals are woven together, encapsulating the desire for community, understanding, and the unknown. The Weir, written by Conor McPherson won the Laurence Olivier Award in 1999, two years after its premiere.
The play opens with a “cantankerous” customer, Jack, making his way into the bar before it’s open, begrudgingly pouring himself Guinness from a bottle because the tap is broken. The bar, owned by Brendan (Peter O’Connor) attracts a local crowd, with regulars like the single Jack (Michael Cullen) and Jim (Mark Shanahan). Finbar (Drew McVety), a married realtor and acquaintance of Brendan, Jack, and Jim brings a town newcomer, Valerie (Nina Hellman) to the bar to introduce her around to the locals, and it’s apparent that her appearance in this small town is unusual. As the play progresses, everyone except Brendan shares a story that features run-ins with the supernatural: fairies or haunted beings that have entered into their lives. As they tell their increasingly eerie stories, Valerie takes a turn, sharing a story of loss that is intensely personal and supernatural. Many of the men have written off their stories, blaming their run-ins on coincidence, no more than ghost tales, but Valerie’s telling of her story gives a sharp insight to the things that we may “write off” in life that actually give way to truths.
The cast is a delight to watch, even during the darker moments in the show. Together they carve out a little piece of Ireland: camaraderie, impeccable Irish brogues, and fascinating stories. Separately, they each bring uniqueness to their characters, becoming Jack, Valerie, Finbar, Brendan, and Jim in everything from mannerisms to inflections to physicality. Jack draws laughs from the audience throughout with his sharp tongue and his no-holds-barred way of living. From his telling of the supernatural fairies that once inhabited Valerie’s new house to his gentle conversation with Valerie about where he is in life—a single man, refusing to leave his hometown—his quest for companionship after letting the love of his life go, poignantly saying, “There’s not one morning I don’t wake up with her name in the room.”
Jim is an eccentric yet quiet character who keeps to himself, sharing one of the darker stories of the group, blaming his frenetically told experience on the flu and drinking moonshine. Shanahan’s portrayal as a likeable yet disheveled Jim leaves the audience laughing at his strange habits while also appreciating his kindness towards Valerie. Finbar is a well off “blow-in,” offering to buy a round of drinks while showing off to Valerie. McVety has a cool and collected demeanor, broken only by reliving his own supernatural experience—the reason he hasn’t smoked in 18 years. His command of the stage is rivaled only by the growing sense of tension with Cullen. Brendan, the barkeep, is the only one to not share a story in the group. However, O’Connor plays Brendan as a keen listener, an active member of the group despite his lack of a supernatural story.
Valerie’s story is a painful reminder that stories of the supernatural can reveal truths. Hellman recounts the tragedy with authenticity: gulps of air, sniffles, and the pain of sharing something so personal that you can barely get the words out. Despite her story’s supernatural side, you are left believing that it could have happened— truly remarkable story telling.
The camaraderie among cast members, despite the underlying tensions between some of the characters, propels this show forward in a way that can only be the mark of excellent acting and direction. The conversation that carries on is natural, moving, and like any conversation: at times awkward, with silence filling the bar during moments of introspection. The audience finds themselves holding their breath as each supernatural story twists and turns, broken only by moments of comic relief such as Jack’s interjection: “I tell you, it’ll give you a thirst!” asking for another drink or “small one,” after sharing his own ghostly story.
The audience will appreciate the experience that this cast brings to the stage under the direction of Amanda Charlton. The stage is never empty as the entire play takes place in a single night, and the physicality of the characters brings energy in the bigger moments of the play or the subtle actions of reading a newspaper, adding wood to the fire, or having a pint. In a dark sequence of stories, there are moments of lightness and insight into the companionship that comes from this group sharing stories and drinks at the bar. The actors rise to the challenge of meeting the demands of the play, providing intense moments, a healthy dose of humor, and tenderness at times.
The play has only one setting, brought to life through Charlie Corcoran’s set design: ash trays atop a wooden bar with working taps and plenty of Guinness, Harp, and spirits to go around. Details like a small radio, a fireplace and pictures depicting the history of the small town make this the perfect setting. The setting is made more realistic through the lighting design of Christina Watanabe whose dim lighting with the occasional eerie flicker is essential to the backdrop of each character’s spooky story. The wind whips through the cold evening and old Irish tunes play from the radio, a sound design expertly executed by John Gromada. Costume design by Amanda Downing Carney provides a sharp contrast between the old and new: Jack, Brendan, and Jim of the small rural town and the newcomers, or “blow-ins” Valerie and Finbar.
The all-star Equity cast will make you feel as though you’ve pulled up a chair up at the bar, ordered a “”small one” and settled in for a night of good Irish storytelling. You will be immersed in the world of this small Irish pub, privy to the ordinary lives of a cast of characters who have experienced extraordinary moments. Don’t miss your chance to be swept up in Irish folklore, presented by a phenomenal cast: tickets at 508-825-5268 or at whiteherontheatre.org.