If you’re reading theater reviews, you probably don’t need to be convinced of the power of storytelling. Though, if you need a little more evidence, NPR published a story this week about how the Inuit raise their children with the unbelievable (to us) ability to control their anger. How, you ask? With strategies based in storytelling.
So, if storytelling has been used to help generations of people control their anger, what about other intense emotional states, like loneliness, isolation or grief? Well, that’s where Main Street Theater’s production of The Weir comes in.
Conor McPherson’s The Weir begins with Jack, the owner of a local garage, entering a rural pub on a windy night in Northwest Ireland. He gets there before barkeep Brendan, who comes in still smarting from a visit with his sisters. Jim, a handyman of sorts who sometimes works with Jack and all times lives with his aging mother, is the second guest to show. Together, the three men anticipate the arrival of Finbar, a man they clearly feel some kind of way about, and Valerie, a recent transplant from Dublin, who Finbar is bringing to the pub to “introduce her to the natives.” Soon after the pair settles in, the jockeying begins, with the men trading quips and posturing for Valerie’s attention. A mention that the house Valerie just bought may be haunted leads from one spooky story to another, but it soon becomes clear that things far scarier than fairies and ghosts plague this motley group of characters.
Yes, The Weir is essentially just five people talking, but know that McPherson himself once acknowledged, "It was just people talking, so it shouldn't have worked — it should have been boring." Turns out, The Weir is anything but boring, and much of that can be attributed to the compassion McPherson shows his characters and the deft hand with which he crafts the 90-odd minute conversation. They gossip, they reminisce, they rib each other and, ultimately, open up, using the communal pub space to share personal experiences — both supernatural and earthly — that defy explanation. The human connection the characters make shine a light, however brief, on the dark, empty space left by the inexplicable, a space that’s come to be filled with things like fear, doubt and grief.
Director Andrew Ruthven smartly rides the ebbs and flows of McPherson’s script, the conversations building naturally, along with suspense and tension, and then breaking. The production is a well-balanced trek into loneliness and isolation, one that elicits a laugh as skillfully as a tear, and never loses its quiet sense of hopefulness. And, not for nothing, it helps when the “people talking” are as talented as Ruthven’s cast.
Rutherford Cravens plays Jack with a good amount of bluster and crab. His bark gives the show much of its humor, as does his resentment toward Kregg Dailey’s Finbar, the tension between the two characters believably ratcheting up until it explodes. Jack notes early on that “you’ve got to relish the details” when telling a story, and Cravens does just that, the first to hold court and also the last. It’s his last story, however, that allows Cravens to truly display Jack’s vulnerability. It’s a quiet, almost subdued delivery, but one no less powerful than the roar glimpsed earlier.
Jack’s sparring partner, Dailey’s Finbar, seems to relish in his status as “big man in town” almost as much as he resents being resented for it. As a bit of both foil and skeptic, Dailey manages to come across as slick, but sincere. And when it comes time to tell a tale, Dailey holds the audience rapt, waiting for a jump scare that never comes. (Or at least, it’s not supposed to, because it’s not that type of show. I, however, did jump at the sudden appearance of a woman at a key moment during Dailey’s monologue. But that was more of a late-seating-strikes-again situation.)
Heidi Hinkel’s Valerie goes from gamely listening to insisting they continue as the conversation wears on. Her desire to hear their stories is explained when Valerie volunteers her own story, one that’s nightmarish in its reality and in the otherworldly questions it raises. Hinkel turns in a gripping performance, holding the audience in the palm of her hand as Valerie’s grief and guilt bubble to the surface.
Though Hinkel’s Valerie tells a story that won’t be topped, Mark Roberts’ Jim tells a story that comes in a close second in terms of being unsettling. Roberts spends much of the play chiming in from his seat at one of the set’s two tables and listening attentively to everyone else. But when it becomes Jim’s time to share, reminded of a time he and a friend who has long-since passed on dug a grave in unusual circumstances, Roberts quickly puts the audience on the edge of their seats, stunning in his delivery of Jim’s tale of a (possible) ghostly encounter.
Bryan Kaplun’s Brendan doesn’t get the chance to spin a yarn of his own, but his presence is felt strongly, and comes from his connection with and grounding of the other characters.
Like McPherson’s play, Liz Freese’s pub set, with properties design by Rodney Walsworth, is contained, but not claustrophobic. With its deep green wall, covered in history, and the mahogany that gleams under J. Mitchell Cronin’s lighting designs, the bar is warm and welcoming, and the picture of a traditional Irish pub. It’s fully stocked and filled with knick-knacks, a cast-iron stove, and enough Irish flags to guarantee you won’t forget where you are. Wooden rafters hang down, with fixtures that add a rustic charm and diegetic light. Cronin’s shifts from those golden tones to the red-orange hue cast during Valerie’s monologue, for example, are subtle but effective.
In many ways, the design team is putting on a class in subtlety and realism, and it can also be seen in Macy Lyne’s costumes. Each character is dressed for an average weeknight with the exceptions of Jack and his ill-fitting, sloppy suit, and Finbar’s cream jacket and grid pants.
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The Weir opens with foreboding in the form of a tune reminiscent of the glockenspiel that has haunted nightmares since 1973, and from there, Janel J. Badrina’s sound design — including the bell that rings as folks come in and out of the pub, and the howling wind that picks up at key moments during the storytelling — provides a nice amount of atmosphere to the proceedings.
Overall, Ruthven makes good use of the space, with his actors visiting every corner of the set as the conversation goes on, but there’s always a risk when actor has their back to you. In this case, some problems stemmed from the Irish accents the actors put on. While mostly successful (credit to dialect coach Carolyn Johnson), some lines were just lost to the ether, and facing the actors’ backs left no chance to even try to read lips.
Still, Main Street Theater’s production of The Weir is beautifully compelling and an example of naturalism at its finest. Forget the place where everybody knows your name. The fictional pub of The Weir is where you should want to be a fly on the wall.
Performances continue through April 7 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Main Street Theater — Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36 to $48.