Much of the narrative around quarantine and our efforts to sustain a sense of community through technology has used terms like “alone together.”
That weekly Zoom chat with friends or family has taken the space formerly occupied by actual togetherness, and so we are alone in front of our computers, but together, at least to some degree, in a virtual space. Loneliness, perhaps for a short period, is abated.
What better playwright, then, to invite into a quarantined world than Conor McPherson, the great bard of loneliness? From his earliest monologue plays to Girl from North Country, the Bob Dylan jukebox musical whose Broadway run was interrupted by quarantine, the Irish playwright has probed the angsty psychology of lonely souls. His characters seem to crave companionship, but are never quite certain how to navigate the world of other people.
In his 1997 play, The Weir, this struggle takes place at a bar—remember bars?
It is a small place in the rural outskirts of northwest Ireland run by Brendan (Tim Ruddy) and frequented, as on this night, by locals like Jack (Dan Butler) and Jim (John Keating). The scuttlebutt around town is that a woman from Dublin, Valerie (Amanda Quaid), has just bought a home in the area, and local businessman and self-assured cock-of-the-walk, Finbar Mack (Sean Gormley) is showing her around, with a tour that will include Brendan’s pub.
Over the course of the one evening that comprises the 100-minute play, the men attempt to welcome Valerie warmly to the neighborhood, but cannot seem to stop themselves from telling the sort of ghost stories that live in the very fabric of their rural environs, a practice that Valerie joins with a story that trumps them all.
Under the guidance of co-artistic director Ciarán O’Reilly, the Irish Rep has shown a particular knack for producing McPherson’s evocative world. Along with recent productions of Dublin Carol (2019), The Seafarer (2018), Shining City (2016), Port Authority (2014), and St. Nicholas (2010), the theater has twice staged The Weir, once in 2013 and again in 2015, both directed by O’Reilly. The current production welcomes back four-fifths of the 2015 cast, and Butler from 2013; Keating and Gormley reprise roles from both earlier shows.
Each of the previous productions has been sensitive and warm, deftly in tune with the quiet struggles that define each of these characters. O’Reilly has proven consistently adroit at getting to the heart of McPherson’s challenging psychology.
But, of course, this quarantine production brings with it the new challenge of social distancing. Theaters around the country have tackled quarantine closure in a variety of ways, from streaming recorded performances to using video chatting technology for staged readings or, as with Richard Nelson’s What Do We Need to Talk About? at the Public, new work written into the virtual space.
For their part, the Irish Rep has made efforts to simulate the staged experience: each performer filmed their role remotely, and then they were edited together (Sarah Nichols) in front of a virtual background of Brendan’s pub. Actors are always alone in the frame, but, occasionally, the allusion of togetherness is achieved by leaning out of frame to accept a cigarette light or a drink, and some sense of movement is achieved by navigating the performers and their gazes in certain directions.
The effect was certainly imperfect—the digital background was never particularly realistic, and the efforts of achieving togetherness were often strained—but the effort is laudable: the Irish Rep should be applauded and supported in their efforts to explore the possibilities of staging quarantine theater.
And what seems most intriguing, after all, is not to judge a performance like this against the standard of a live show, but rather, as an entity in and of itself, as a medium of “performance on screen” rather than a derivative attempt at replicating in-person theater.
In that regard, the sound performances here and the acute direction capture the intricacies of The Weir with unique skill. For although McPherson’s characters spend a night together in a tiny pub like they have done countless times before, it would be a mistake to presume that they ever come to an understanding of one another or of themselves. These characters are perpetually alone together, an aspect that the framing and imperfect efforts at community attempted by the Irish Rep accentuate intriguingly.
This is production tells us that our sense of halting yearning for togetherness is nothing new in quarantine, and invites us to reexamine how we have ever managed our loneliness.