Like all good ghost tales, this one begins on a dark and stormy night. A spirited wild wind whistles through the door each time one of the locals makes his way into the lonely Irish pub at the center of this story and settles onto his stool. Here, in the brown and homely bar, with its tin ashtrays, stone mantel and dusty, grayed-out photos (all designed with an astonishing eye for detail by Jodie Bobrovsky), some of the strangest and fiercest tales ever spun will burn in the mesmerizing glow of the fire. For Main Street Theater's production of Conor McPherson's award-winning The Weir is simply luminous.
In interviews, McPherson has said that the weir in the title refers to a dam, a boundary between the calm of still waters and the chaos of rushing falls. Moving about their uneventful lives, with the ease of their barroom banter, his characters seem an awful lot like calm water: quiet, common, easy to ignore. But still waters run deep, and on one solitary night, everything these workaday lonely-hearts keep bound up inside comes rushing to the surface in a series of deliciously told yarns that get ever more disturbing with each new turn. In McPherson's world, when the ordinary is unbound, it becomes bewitching.
The appeal is not so much in the information imparted. These stories are filled with the usual spooky stuff: fairies and ghosts and children lost in the night. But the delightful way these stories are told by the stunning cast assembled for this production will raise the hairs on the back of your neck, and in the end they'll chill anyone with warm blood to the well-dark bottoms of their hearts.
The collection of ordinary blokes assembled here is compelling. They spend their days working with their hands and their nights throwing back ale and "short ones" to ward off any aches in their lonely, country souls. Tenderhearted Jack (Rutherford Cravens) is a cantankerous crusty crab on the outside. During the day he works in solitude in his garage; at night he sleeps in the room above it. Cravens, with his furrowed brow and bulldog growl, is perfectly cast. He can turn even the simple act of gulping down a shot into a perfectly crafted moment.
Smiling, middle-aged Jim (George Brock) does odd jobs that include digging the occasional grave -- a handy service, especially if you're gathering ghost tales. Shuffling in with his too-short pants, white socks and black lace-up shoes (a brilliant costume choice), Brock finds the awkward inward quality that has kept Jim living with his ailing mum his entire life.
The sweetest of the bunch is barkeep Brendan (Mark Roberts). With his easy, twinkling smile, Roberts makes Brendan the perfect homespun host, who's also smart enough to have kept hold of a large tract of family farmland, much to the chagrin of Finbar (Kent Johnson), the local dandy who's made big bucks wheeling and dealing property in the area. Strutting into the bar in his tan suit and shiny loafers, with his hair all slicked back, Johnson is fine as the oily Finbar, who's known for his shady dealings and his low-down womanizing. During the night, Finbar manages to make his old cronies furious, especially since Mr. Fancy-pants walks in with a lovely new woman on his arm.
As the new stranger Valerie, Rosalind Blacoe balances girl-next-door charm with dark-lady mystery. Likable from the start (even if she does come in with creepy Finbar), Valerie is also clearly carrying a secret. It's hidden in her demure tenderness and her often downcast eyes. But it will take a while before we learn her story. In the meantime, she will change the very fabric of the place, as all these men strain to put their most charming selves forward. That's how the stories start, as a sort of Irish cock-strut, where each man tries to outdo the others with ever more unnerving tales.
But what is most eloquent in this production is the give and take between the teller and the listeners. Each story might seem like a monologue were it not for the rest of the cast listening with such attention. And each actor finds a singular and inventive rhythm in which to tell these stories. The breaths and pauses and rushing forward are timed to a hypnotic precision so that one can't help but lean in with wonder and expectation.
As the stories gather power, they become more personal, and revelatory. But it's Valerie, the stranger, who tells the most chilling tale; hers burrows down below goose-bumped skin and straight into the place that makes the heart ache.
The accumulative synergy of all these stories results in a night of theater as good as anything offered anywhere in the city this year. Directed with elegant understatement by Patti Bean, The Weir is a tale not to be missed.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events