Conor McPherson loves to hear people talk. Whether in his early plays (mainly made up of monologues by one or several characters), or his more recent ensemble plays, like Shining City and The Seafarer, the contemporary Irish playwright treats the everyday language of people telling stories with a fascinated reverence. The first job of a McPherson play’s acting and production team is to get out of the language’s way, to allow words to flow as freely as possible. With a sense of nuance and delicacy, the team behind The Weir at New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre completes that job skillfully.
The Weir is McPherson’s 1997 play about four local men in rural Ireland doing their best to make the new woman in town feel at home. Valerie (Tessa Klein) is a transplant who has moved from Dublin out to the country in response to personal crisis. She has had help in finding a home from Finbar (Sean Gormley), a local businessman with some wealth and a touch of flair, and finds herself on this windy night at the tiny pub owned by Brendan (Billy Carter). They are joined by Jack (Dan Butler), an older man and the local mechanic, and young Jim (John Keating) who makes a living doing odd jobs while taking care of his elderly mother in failing health. As locals in a small area and regulars at Brendan’s pub, the men are all very familiar with each other—familiar enough to have developed both affection and aggravation—but Valerie is a stranger, and so the tension of the evening revolves around the imperfect and necessarily tenuous union between an outsider and a long-since established community.
The Weir was McPherson’s first ensemble play—commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre on the very condition that it not be a monologue—but although the playwright admits more characters and embraces dialogue, he does not abandon the trope of long speeches. The bulk of The Weir’s ninety minutes is occupied by five long stories narrated by four of its characters (Brendan is more of the silent type, while Jack finds time to tell two stories), linked by the casual and occasionally tense conversation of pub regulars.
In keeping with the mystical aura of a cold, windy night in the Irish countryside, we hear mostly stories of ghosts and fairies, of hauntings and of the lingering presence of something beyond human perception. But they are neither stories of legend nor tales of long-ago-and-far-away. Rather, the stories are local tales, known well enough by everybody in the area, but foreign to Valerie. In telling them, the men are inherently inducting Valerie into the social fabric of their home. It is not enough to own a house down the road; if Valerie is to be a part of this community, she must know the human and mystical dimensions of its history.
So while she learns a bit of local history by the old photos on the pub walls—like one of the hydroelectric weir that brought power to the area in 1951, built by a crew of local men that included the fathers of Brendan and Finbar—her lesson in the spiritual context of her new home comes through ghost stories.
Jack’s first story is about a local population of fairies who travelled along a favorite path from their pastoral home on the hill down to the pebbly beach where they would bathe. When a house was built along the fairy road, the family inside heard knocking on the windows and the doors—the fairies wanted to get through. After a visit from the pastor for blessing, the house was free of the knocking, but the spectre of the fairy’s presence remains strong enough to inflect the area with a sense of mysticism.
Finbar and Jim eventually follow suit with ghost stories of their own—each more disturbing than the last—before Valerie reveals what brought her out to the country through her own long story about the intersection of personal tragedy and ghostliness. Although the men constantly reassure Valerie that each story they tell is “only an old cod,” the awareness of and concern with an other-worldly presence makes her feel oddly at home. These stories are Valerie’s initiation into the community far more than are the courtesies and politeness of the men.
On the surface, very little by way of “action” happens throughout McPherson’s oeuvre—the monologues are entirely characters telling stories, and the ensembles are in many ways similar—but as with The Weir, the action takes place within, among, and around the prosaic lyricism of storytelling. The rural county of this play’s setting is a quiet place of unparalleled darkness on winter nights and isolation most other times. But evenings in the pub are a time for community and shared experience facilitated and fostered by language and stories. Life can be awfully lonely in the Irish countryside, but The Weir suggests that there is a soothing power not simply in company and camaraderie, but more so in sharing access to a community archive of stories and storytelling.
In the steady hands of director Ciaran O’Reilly and a first-rate cast, the Irish Rep’s production deftly dwells in the powerful space of storytelling. Subtle light and sound cues accent the scenes of stories, while the particular storyteller looks mostly into a vague distance rather than at his or her audience, who are frozen in attentive listening. The stylized storytelling set-pieces underscore these “old cods” as the soul of this play and this community.