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Theatre in Review: The Weir (Irish Repertory Theatre Online)

Amanda Quaid in The Weir.

In the annals of pandemic theatre, The Weir is something new. Conor McPherson's play focuses on five characters drinking and telling tales in an Irish country pub, and the digital wizards at the Irish Rep have, using green-screen effects, managed to place everyone against a backdrop recreating Charlie Corcoran's original set design. (Irish Rep produced the play twice, in 2013 and 2015.) Recent productions, written directly for presentation online, have taken different tacks: Richard Nelson's Apple Family plays were conceived as Zoom get-togethers, and The Line, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's documentary drama about frontline healthcare workers, is structured as a series of interlocking monologues, each actor appearing via Zoom, FaceTime, or some other similar program. In its ability to suggest that the entire company is somehow occupying the same space, The Weir makes a technical step forward.

In fact, each member of the cast is currently based in a different location across several states and it's remarkable how the production creates the illusion of them being together. What this setup can't do, however, is get more than one actor into a shot. This results in rather too much cross-cutting in search of reactions; The Weir is constructed largely out of monologues and it can be distracting to find one's focus shifted away from whoever is speaking to a montage of furrowed brows and sympathetic glances.

Still, if you're a fan of The Weir, this is a remarkably successful presentation. Note the "if": McPherson's first big American success, it -- like most of his plays -- is constructed out of equal parts whiskey and rue, with passages of great lyrical beauty and virtually no dramatic structure. It is populated by a typical McPherson collection of boozy, heartsore bachelors of a certain age, all of whom have squandered their chances for happiness out of duty, or selfishness, or emotional blindness; they gather together, measuring out their melancholia in jiggers and pints. On this evening, Finbar -- a successful local hotelier and an object of jealousy and scorn for the others -- shows up with Valerie, a faintly mysterious young woman from Dublin. (Finbar is married, but he clearly revels in squiring his new friend around town; he treats her like a celebrity "get.") Perhaps out of a desire to impress Valerie, the men in the pub roll out a series of ghost stories that may prove more revelatory than intended.

As always, McPherson has the ear of a poet: Finbar, by way of subtly humiliating his unmarried friends, sums up their old-bachelor existences as "thirty years of old newspapers and cheap thrillers, all lying there in the damp since their mammies died and that was the last bit of cleaning went on in the place." And there's one character's admission that "It would take more than money to put manners on me." And this description of a priest called on to minister to a woman experiencing strange visions: "Like he'd more be Vatican II. There wouldn't be much of all the demons or that kind of carry-on with him." The stories -- of unexplained knockings on the door and apparitions on staircases -- become progressively more unsettling until Valerie stuns them all with a terrible account rooted in personal tragedy.

I suppose the right way of looking at The Weir is as a piece of verbal music consisting of several movements; still, McPherson's congenital allergy to drama can disappoint, for all the lovely speeches at his command. This ultra-intimate version may be the best way of enjoying the play, especially as it mostly reassembles the cast of the 2015 production, sensitively directed by CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly. Dan Butler is full of bluster as Jack, probably the oldest in the room and not getting any younger, with a quietly heartbreaking story to tell about the love he let slip through his fingers. Sean Gormley preens effectively as Finbar, who considers himself a cut above his friends. John Keating brings a real poignancy to the role of Jim, a kindly soul tied to his ailing mother and aware that time is slipping away. Tim Ruddy listens intently and supplies marvelously subtle reactions as Brendan, the publican who watches over them all, saying much less than he feels. Amanda Quaid provides a finely shaded study in grief as Valerie, who has experienced unspeakable loss, with an inexplicable aftermath. The production also benefits hugely from the sound design of M. Florian Staab, especially his evocation of the wind whipping outside the pub.

If The Weir isn't likely to make converts of anyone who enjoys plays rooted in conflict, this production is a can't-miss experience for McPherson's many fans. It was originally billed as being available for only three days last week, but perhaps the Irish Rep will bring it back for yet another return engagement. -- David Barbour

(27 July 2020)

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