Sunday, February 22, 2009

Theater review: ‘The Weir,' Irish things that go bump in the night

Dennis Creaghan (left), Lena Kaminsky, Karl Hanover,
Frank Converse, Declan Mooney in Palm Beach
Dramaworks' production of The Weir.
(Photo by Shel Shanak)

By Hap Erstein

Put a handful of Irishmen in a bar and they will soon be drinking and swapping lyrical tall tales. It is a fact of life and of the theater, as evidenced by Conor McPherson’s simple, plotless, yet haunting collection of ghost stories, The Weir, which opened Friday evening in an understated, though compelling production at Palm Beach Dramaworks.

While the 1999 work won London’s Olivier Award for Best New Play and introduced the young writer to Broadway in an acclaimed transfer the next season, it is probably best approached without heightened expectations. Unlike his fellow countryman Martin McDonough (The Pillowman, In Bruges), who traffics in grisly theatricality, McPherson is content to draw word pictures, to draw on an audience’s imagination and to draw us in until we are listening intently on the edge of our seats.

The Weir contains the very essence of theater, though one might correctly observe that little actually happens in the course of its intermissionless two hours. One by one, the denizens of a humble country pub arrive out of the blustery night, warm themselves by the hearth and fortify themselves with liquid refreshment. They idly banter among themselves, and it only when their routine is disrupted by an outsider — a Dublin lass who has just bought a nearby house — that they are prompted to launch into their whiskey-soaked yarns of the other side.

Jack (Frank Converse), a gregarious old barfly so comfortable in these surroundings that he often pours his own drinks, begins with an unnerving anecdote of fairies that would knock on the door of the cottage that newcomer Valerie has just purchased. Less verbal handyman Jim (Karl Hanover) follows it up with a spooky graveyard vignette. And dapper Finbar (Dennis Creaghan), the real estate agent celebrating Valerie’s contract-signing, adds his own creepy tale involving the return of a dead woman. Each story works as an engrossing narrative, as well as a character-delineating sketch.

But if the men intended to frighten Valerie (Lena Kaminsky), they sorely underestimated her. For she soon takes her turn, with a deeply personal, spectral story of her own that explains why she has taken solitary refuge in the town. It is the locals who are devastated by what she has gone through and Jack is then moved to tell the evening’s only tale that does not involve ghosts, but a tale of loss which fills us in on why he never married.

Director J. Barry Lewis weaves all of this with an invisible hand, setting a tone of naturalism that offsets the poetic language. Although no dialect coach is credited, the entire ensemble is adept at the Irish accents, which adds a crucial air of authenticity. He never seems to impose movement on his actors, yet the evening avoids feeling static.

Dramaworks has scored a coup with the casting of stage and screen star Converse, who anchors the production as wry Jack, whose gruff exterior is belied by the twinkle in his eye. As talkative as Jack, that is how taciturn barkeep Brendan is, but Declan Mooney manages to make a great deal of his silences.

Hanover comes alive in his story, while keeping Jim an enigma and Creaghan — fresh from McPherson’s The Seafarer at Mosaic Theatre — oozes hale charm. Just as Valerie stuns the group with her tale of loss, Kaminsky’s understated rendering of her story is a highlight of the evening.

The usually reliable Michael Amico’s pub set is rich in details, but too well appointed for the dilapidated establishment described. Fortunately, Joseph P. Oshry’s shadowy lighting compensates, casting a dank glow over the evening.

The Weir — the word refers to a nearby dam — is helped by the intimacy of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ playing space, which places the audience inside the pub with the locals. The only thing that might improve the production is if we too had pints of Guinness to help sustain us as we take in these tales of the supernatural.

THE WEIR, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Feb. 20 - April 5. Tickets: $40-$42. Call: (561) 514-4042.

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