Raise a glass, bend an ear
By Carolyn Hayes
To close its all-Irish season, The Abreact could not have made a more Irish-for-Irish’s sake selection than “The Weir.” Beer, whiskey, yarn spinning, and supernatural folklore are the foundation of playwright Conor McPherson’s nimbly simple script. However, as abundantly demonstrated here, one ordinary night at the pub – rendered intensely authentic by directors Adam Barnowski, Andrea Smith, and Eric W. Maher – can make for an extraordinarily affecting theater experience.
The brief slip of a play concerns one evening in a cozy watering hole in rural Ireland, home turf for publican Brendan (Andrew Parker) and a reliable band of locals, plus whoever else happens to pass through. This particular night finds regulars Jack (Joel Mitchell) and Jim (David Schoen) simmering in the latest gossip: A woman has just moved to town, and another fellow has taken it upon himself – transparent motivations and all – to show her around. As if summoned, in walk none other but rapacious tour guide Finbar (Travis Reiff) and his amusingly indulging-standoffish quarry, Valerie (Kristine Stephens).
True to form for gents who have known each other forever, what follows is a litany of ribbing and posturing intended to gain the new female’s favor, which escalates into a storytelling exchange concerning fantastic and inexplicable phenomena. McPherson’s exquisitely constructed and paced drama appears to rise and fall here with the ease of breathing, punctuated by these story monologues, as the characters verbally tussle and commune between rounds.
The standout characteristic of this production is its staunch realness. It begins with Maher’s revelatory visual design, whose cornerstone is a stocked and operational bar, perfectly nestled into the Abreact’s unique architecture. (On opening night, one tap flowed with home-brewed stout that was offered freely to thirsty patrons; it is this reviewer’s fervent hope that the supply holds out through future performances, for reasons of both ambience and taste.) The accouterments of active drinking – and onstage smoking – keep Parker and his patrons busy, and a kitty-corner seating area helps keep the players cyclically visible, with gently shifting staging beset by periods of rapt stillness. Even the lighting serves merely to bolster the work of the visible lamps, fixtures, and potbellied stove endeavoring to keep the dank at bay; between that and the costumes’ nubby knits and layers, such a welcoming onslaught of kindly immersion could very nearly make the snow-weariest Michigander regret the oncoming spring.
Furthering the reality of this world is a slate of carefully tuned performances, refined to the last detail.
As the most outlandish of the bunch, Reiff earns the biggest laughs, embodying a character whose dually defensive and humorless nature combines into relentless absurdity. However, the stories and the way they’re conveyed provide some of the most telling material about the characters, reflecting their storytelling strengths and varying abilities: On one end of the spectrum, captivating Mitchell spins expert pauses and phrases into poetry; on the other, quietly knackered Schoen inserts wonderful hiccups of tension-breaking comedy.
Yet the most important element in this reality, and the crux of the play, is superstition, which creeps in through the gently eerie bent of the stories being told. From the first mention, Stephens wears Valerie’s naked need for supernatural occurrences to be real across her face, a desperation that becomes clear in one restrained tale of loss and fragility that completely changes the timber of the room and the night. As the topic ever so gracefully veers from faeries and apparitions to personal ghosts of remorse and regret, the hard-won realism of the production shows its true effectiveness, bringing the audience that much closer to their own legitimate haunts and imbuing them with a weighty, enduring notion of something just out of reach.
The world of “The Weir” is none other than our own, thanks to this production’s attention to atmosphere and thoughtfully grounded performances. The commitment to veracity pays off in effusive moments and outstanding flow, but more importantly, it works to substantiate the prickling superstitions raised by this tenderly haunting text. Although the show initially entices with its inviting, tactile atmosphere, its ultimate achievement is in making the hovering, absorbing magic that saturates the play into something equally – and unquestionably – real.