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Theater review: 'The Weir' at South Coast Repertory

March 20, 2011 |  2:17 pm

The weir 1 
The monologue is very dear to the heart of Irish playwright Conor McPherson, who loves nothing more than having a character regale an audience with a tall inebriated tale. His earliest efforts were typically word-drunk, Guinness-drenched arias that could begin, as “The Good Thief” did, with a stranger onstage chattily proposing, “Let’s begin with an incident.”
“The Weir,” produced on Broadway in 1999 after racking up awards in London, represented a breakthrough for McPherson. The stories circulating in this work are actually connected by dialogue. Drama is seen as well as heard, even if, as the new production directed by Warner Shook at South Coast Repertory makes clear, much of what we see are mouths and tongues in continuous motion.

The setting is a generic barroom in rural Ireland, one of those local hangouts in which conversational color is expected to make up for the drabness of décor. Scenic designer Thomas Buderwitz resists the temptation of fire-roaring kitsch, opting instead for a cozy bareness that never lets you lose sight of the wind howling outside the door.

Weir 2This is the kind of place where regulars like Jack (Richard Doyle) feel free to serve themselves when Brendan (Tony Ward), the barman, has momentarily stepped away. The dark winter quiet has chased away the hordes of German tourists that descend on the town each year. Jack prefers it this way, trading rounds with sweet, lonely-eyed Jim (Daniel Reichert), but the desolation is thick.  Drinking and talking are Prozac for these men, who accept the bleakness as part of the natural landscape of their lives.
The big excitement this evening is that Finbar (James Lancaster), a self-satisfied businessman who’s been buying up the town, is dropping by with a woman who’s not his wife. Valerie (Kirsten Potter) has just moved into the area from Dublin, and Finbar is helping her get settled into one of his properties. He encourages Jack to fill her in on some of the native lore, a request that sets off a series of ghost stories.
The first of these chilling anecdotes revolves around “the fairy road,” which just so happens to run through the house now occupied by Valerie, who’s curiously receptive and unafraid. It turns out she’s haunted by something far more worrying than menacing woodland creatures.
“The Weir” isn’t as well crafted as the “The Seafarer” or “Shining City,” two of McPherson’s more recent Broadway successes, but it maps out the terrain of his imagination, which straddles the borderline between the supernatural and the psychological. Grief gives way to ghosts; loss opens a window to the occult. The Gaelic wit isn’t quite as wicked as it will later become, but the humor nicely balances the poignancy. The tenderness is unmistakable, but so too is the static quality of the piece. The playwright hasn’t yet found his stage legs — he’s learning to shuffle, though galloping is still beyond him.  

Shook’s staging has laudable integrity. An encompassing ambiance, one part John M. Synge, one part Samuel Becket, is achieved. What’s lacking is momentum. The production indulges the play’s melancholy slowness. Deep feelings need time to register, but drama implies action. There are moments, particularly at the beginning and end, when the pace threatens to grind to a complete halt.  

The cast is solid, a true ensemble affair. As Jack, Doyle provides the right mix of cantankerousness and compassion. His character’s querulous bent, exacerbated by his beer of choice not being available on tap, is a handy cover for permanent scars.

Reichert lends a somber innocence to Jim, who still lives with his geriatric mother and can’t envision another setup for himself. Ward amplifies Brendan’s hopeful resilience. If there are any romantic possibilities for Valerie in this backwater, they will likely involve him. Finbar’s slickness, though sympathetically captured by Lancaster, is too transparent to seduce her. 

Potter is at her most impressive when Valerie is passively reacting. The way she clutches her cardigan, the courtesies she extends to her new acquaintances, the sorrow that flashes on her face unbidden — Valerie may be a stranger at the bar, but she is made known to us. When the time comes for her to share her own spooky yarn, however, Potter’s portrayal loses some of its naturalness. A self-consciousness creeps in.

But the undercurrent of prosaic sadness rambling below the surface of “The Weir” — and, really, all of McPherson’s theatrical works — is preserved. What scares these pub denizens is ultimately more ordinary than otherworldly and therefore all the more frightening for us.

— Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty
“The Weir,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends April 3. $28 to $66. (714) 708-5555 or Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (no intermission).   

Photos: Richard Doyle, left, Daniel Reichert, James Lancaster, Tony Ward and Kirsten Potter.  Bottom: Potter, Ward and Lancaster. Credit: Christina House / For The Times.