backstage (2007-08)

Irish Therapy

The Actors' Co-op presents Conor McPherson's The Weir

by Kevin Crowe

Imagine you're seeing a psychiatrist. As you lay back on the couch, the psychobabble has a strange soothing effect before you spill your guts. Imagine, if you will, that your past continues to haunt you, that you're ever-so-close to total mental breakdown, unless you can get it all out. Sometimes, a psychiatrist doesn't need to practice much psychiatry to be effective. Sometimes, prescription drugs aren't necessary, and that's especially true if there's plenty of cheap beer and Jameson. Tell me about it , the beery voices urge.

Now, imagine that you're far out in the Irish countryside, saddled up to the bar. "I'll have a small one," you say, "and a pint." Your friends are there, swapping stories, remembering times long past. Their sweet Irish accents tell each tale with a kind of merriment that you don't get in American bars. Here, it's like a fairytale, as the past becomes littered with banshees and faeries, and the haunting pangs of childhood are lost in folklore. You're drinking heavily, because your friends keep buying you rounds. It's not terribly hard to imagine. What's on your mind?

So, you talk, until you can get it all out. Therapy is not for the faint of heart.

The Weir , the first successful dramatic offering from the young Irish playwright Conor McPherson, won the Laurence Olivier award for Best Play in 1997. Now, 10 years later, it hasn't lost any resonance. The play is deceptively simple, with all the action taking place in a small, rural bar. And, unfortunately for the characters, the Guinness tap is broken. "You on the bottle?" Jim (played by James Richardson, a Co-op newbie) asks Jack, a role played by Greg Congleton, who eventually steals the show with his gruff witticism and playful wisdom. Congleton returns to the Black Box Theatre for the first time since his appearance as Friar Lawrence in last year's Appalachian-reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet .

Behind the bar is Brendan, played by Darrien Thomson, who has been away from the Black Box for a few years. Amy Hubbard handles the part of Valerie, the young Irishwoman visiting from Doublin; as usual, her stage presence is phenomenal. As Finbar, the rural aristocrat, we get Tony Cedeño, who was most recently on stage in the Clarence Brown Theatre's production of A Year with Frog and Toad .

With only five characters, one set and one act, it's easy to get lost in the striking familiarity of the setting, because the action is almost too natural to be a dramatic work. There's no dénouement, no tableaux, no definitive climax. It's just a few friends talking the night away, just people being people. But this is an exorcism, in a sense, a great spiritual purification as each character must face personal demons, simply by talking to one another.

And the dialogue by itself is cathartic. Communication here is not designed to build toward any particular epiphany. The progression of the script is something akin to reading a David Mamet play, with its stammered, half-finished sentences. Yet this is slower than anything Mamet ever wrote. McPherson takes full advantage of pauses, filled with slivers of throwaway dialogue, such as "yes" and other sundry grunts and coughs, all of which feels very natural during the moments when no one has anything particularly interesting to say.

When they do speak, however, it's poetry. Irish accents tend to sing. When Jack's telling Valerie stories, it's easy to get lost in the singsong qualities of his voice, as his story circles around some central idea. But the idea is easily lost, because the stories veer off course and delve into myth, history and strange memories from each character's past.

This may not be the kind of play you'd expect when going to the theater, but it is deceptively bigger than plays that are structured more soundly by equally competent playwrights. That's how McPherson gets you, by sidestepping traditional ideas of plot and subplot. James Joyce would probably be a huge fan of McPherson's work.

When you hear the characters tell their stories and exorcise their demons, it's easy to see a little bit of yourself in each of them. It's a human drama, and it leaves you more concerned about the human condition than any morality play, because The Weir reminds the audience of just how complicated humans can be. Deceptively complicated. And, even though nothing may be solved in the end, there's a sense of peace. McPherson showcases his characters' fascination with the utterly complex--and, perhaps, utterly hopeless and often depressing--human condition.

Maybe, after the actors leave the bar, it doesn't matter, because they'll be back, still trying to make sense out of their existence, just like the rest of us. What's on your mind , the voices will continue.

Who: The Actors' Co-Op


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