nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
October 15, 2010
Conor McPherson's The Weir is easily one of the most celebrated new plays of the past 20 years. After taking home the Olivier Award for Best Play and enjoying a heralded run in the UK and on Broadway in the last few years of the 1990s, it has gone on to be included among the most important works of the 20th century in numerous "best of" lists. Folding Chair Classical Theatre's remounting of this lovely and elegiac play is an excellent opportunity to catch a faithful rendition of this sometimes chilling, sometimes sentimental piece that appears to be entrenching itself into the modern Western Canon—and even though I left the theatre with some reservations about the overall production, I was glad to see the script as well served as it was.
The story of The Weir is deceptively simple: on a cold, windy night in a small, tightly knit community in rural Ireland, a handful of regulars trickle in for a quiet night at their local pub. Among them this time is a pretty, young woman recently transplanted from Dublin. As the conversations progress, and as the locals alternatively compete and conspire to fill this new woman in on the area's history, they alight on the subject of fairies and ghosts. Each person, it seems, has a tale to tell, some more supernatural than others, and the threads eventually weave together into a tapestry in which the past is a ghost and the ghosts are the past.
This kind of plot-less theatre can be a feast for actors, as is McPherson's melodic dialogue, and thankfully Folding Chair's production is blessed with a capable and astute cast. Angus Hepburn is marvelous as Jack—he is at once jolly and morose, playful and mournful (in other words, quintessentially Irish), and his entirely convincing performance serves as an anchor for the proceedings. Ian Gould creates a charmingly sincere, well-meaning, yet sad character with Brendan the barkeep. Lisa Blankenship's Valerie rings completely true and her tale towards the end is haunting in every sense. Richard Ryan Cowden succeeds in creating an ambitious, perhaps pompous, man with Finbar, who never tilts into caricature and remains sympathetic and vulnerable throughout. And Gowan Campbell's Jim is a simple, quiet man, whose somewhat thick demeanor belies a watchful and understanding soul. Not all of the dialects are successful, and not all the story arcs are given a dramatically satisfying polish, but never once do you really feel like you're watching actors delivering lines—it's an effective fly-on-the-wall experience.
However, there were some elements that kept me from feeling like the evening was a complete success. Besides there seeming to be a conspiracy afoot from plastic-bag-toting audience members and late-seaters to prevent me from hearing most of the first five or six minutes of dialogue, there was something generally muted about the production as a whole that kept me at a bit of a distance. The intimacy created by both the size of the house and Marcus Geduld's naturalistic direction is lovely and palpable—yet still I felt somewhat at arm's length from the realities of the situation.
Part of the blame can be laid on the space itself. The Weir is utterly dependent on atmosphere and the Access Theatre sits right on Broadway in TriBeCa, with very little insulation from the noise outside. It's an uphill battle creating mystery and tension, to say the least, when every few minutes a truck is trundling loudly by on its way to the Brooklyn Bridge. Of course, that's a fight we all face producing theatre in New York City, but for a piece so dependent on quietude, it was especially unfortunate and unwelcome. However, the production design was culprit, as well, in keeping me from feeling fully engaged.
What little set there is goes a long way towards portraying the world of the play—and hats off to Geduld for creating so much with so little—but the stage (and even house) seemed perplexingly well lit—I sat in the last row and could still easily have read my program had I wanted to—which is hardly the ideal atmosphere for what is essentially an evening of ghost stories (and while The Weir isn't, in the end, a scary play, its uncanny eeriness is an essential ingredient in its emotional payoff). Also, the entire upstage area is littered with small candles on the floor that, though lovely, call attention to a large, empty playing space that is never used and lead one's eye to the surrounding blank white walls, which takes away from the immediacy both the script and the actors are working towards creating. Even the sound effects of the howling wind outside felt curiously quiet and underplayed—more suggestive than immersive. Despite the closeness of the cast and the convincing performances, I never truly felt like I was in the pub itself. I was a fly on the wall, but I had no real sense of the wall I was on.
All that being said, though, this is an admirable enough production to warrant attending. McPherson's play is a gem, and while Folding Chair doesn't buff the gem to a high polish, it deserves ample credit for giving us such a sincere and well played remount. I look forward to seeing more from this company in the future.