'The Weir' Focuses on the Spooks of Life

Spirited away
Henry DiRocco/SCR

A dark and windy night. Four rural Irish men and a comely lass in a tattered tavern on the edge of Ireland's rugged Northwestern coast. Nothing to do but quaff pints and shots of whiskey and swap stories. Of course, tales of ghosts and fairies take center-stage. It's Ireland, for fuck's sake, and the role of folklore is one of the signifying qualities of the Irish culture. Apparently, being invaded and subjugated by foreign powers for centuries on end forces a people to create and perpetuate a mythology as a way to maintain an identity (just ask Mexicans).

There are five ghost stories in The Weir, Conor McPherson's brilliantly understated 1997 play. The first is elicited from Jack, a crusty old codger who, attempting to give a new arrival to the small town a taste of local flavor, tells of a house built on an old fairy road. Since the house is in the way of fairy passage, knocks are often heard on the front door in the dead of night. That house has recently been purchased by that new arrival, Valerie, a transplant from Dublin desperately trying to escape a domestic tragedy by relocating to the countryside. The next three stories ratchet up the stakes. There are ghosts on stairways presaging a death hundreds of miles away, ghosts in graveyards who demand to be buried with children, and a freakish phone call to a mother from her dead child.

Though The Weir has no real plot or dramatic action, and scant information is provided about the five characters, every moment feels steeped in authenticity, thanks to its razor-taut construction and salt-of-the-Earth Irish lyricism. As Jack, South Coast Repertory founding artist Richard Doyle finally lands a role in which he can exercise his formidable talents. But the entire cast is spot-on, from James Lancaster's good-natured, if slightly lecherous, Finbar and Daniel Reichert's painfully slow but good-hearted Jim to Tony Ward's achingly lonely tavern owner Brendan and Kirsten Porter's Valerie, the most spooked of all.

While the five ghostly tales supply the play's body, director Warner Shook knows the relationship between its characters fortifies its spine. The moments between the stories are laced with caustic humor and the occasional insulting tirade, all of which show that even as characters berate or mock one another, they realize on some level their inter-dependence. Shook's main feat is managing to keep that bane of theater, actor egos, from surfacing. The actors don't seem concerned with chewing up scenery, one-upping one another or doing anything but serving their function in an incredibly well-oiled machine.

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Shook and his cast get out of the way of McPherson's dialogue and let it carry the play. There is no attempt to make The Weir any bigger or more important than it is. And that allows its internal life to develop and ultimately captivate the space. Seldom does a play that seems so simplistic carry such emotional and dramatic freight, and that's a testament to Shook's direction.

The Weir is much more than a play about haunting stories, however. It's a play about haunted characters—characters who, looking back on their lives, acknowledge the decisions they've made that have kept them mired in a backwater town. It's not so much they've turned away from life as they've let it slide by them—with the exception of Valerie, who seems to still possess the opportunity to not take a similar path.

So the real ghosts in the room aren't the apparitions at the center of the tales; they are memories of past decisions and indecisions. That is eloquently borne out in the last ghost tale, delivered, once again, by Jack. After harrowing tales of supernatural visitors witnessed by the characters—visitors who may or may not be "real" —Jack's final yarn is absolutely true and verifiable. He tells of a woman he let slip away decades ago. Cruel, brooding and prideful, he spurns her and she marries another man. At first, Jack believes he couldn't care less. But as years pass, he realizes what he's done and can't shake her memory.

That memory is as much a ghost to Jack as the visitors who have haunted the lives of the other characters, and it's a ghost even more palpable. "There isn't a morning I wake up and her name isn't in the room," he concludes—an apt summation of the spooks of life.

This review appeared in print as "The Spooks of Life: Tales of ghosts and fairies abound in South Coast Rep's staging of The Weir—but they're not the true scary story."

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