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In the first moments of The Weir, Brendan, a barman in Ireland’s rural northwest, tries to pull a draught of Guinness but is foiled by a faulty tap. So tonight it’ll be the indignity of bottled Guinness, and draught Harp, and lots of “small ones,” meaning whiskey shots, for his small, loyal group of off-season customers, who’ve known each other, and him, all their lives.
At the Sunday matinee performance I saw, the draught Harp situation wasn’t much better: Early in the show, Jon Townson, the tall, handsome actor who plays Brendan, served David Jourdan a Harp (or something beerlike) that was three-quarters head. I wondered what Jourdan would do. He probably knows which lines he’ll sip on, but he wouldn’t drink until the brew had settled, right? Wouldn’t any patron hand that glass-three-quarters-empty pint back to the barkeep and ask for a new one? Would a barman even serve one of his regulars a brew like that?
Jourdan went right ahead and drank from that too-frothy glass. Which is maybe just what his character, Jim, would do. Soulful but diffident and dim, he’s not what you’d call the assertive type.
Look, these kinds of plays live or die by their details. Set in one location in real time, The Weir is the kind of interior, Irish-to-its-chilly-bones piece at which Keegan Theatre excels. Scena, one of D.C.’s two other companies devoted wholly or in large part to Irish plays, will offer what it’s promoting as “a genuine Irish production” of The Weir next month, with genuine Irishmen imported from genuine Ireland for three roles. Presumably, they will still be actors working from a script.
Will that Weir be better? I don’t know. I like this one just fine. Oft-revived since its 1997 debut, the play recounts an evening at the pub, where the familiars are taking shelter from some stereotypically Irish weather. After the well-heeled hotelier and entrepreneur Finbar (Mick Tinder) comes around escorting Valerie, who’s just rented a country house from him—she comes from cosmopolitan Dublin, toothsome and younger than all present, save perhaps for Brendan—the men vie for her attention with tall tales of their encounters with the supernatural. Their obsequious braggadocio eventually warms her into a sharing a possible ghost story of her own that both satisfies their curiosity about her and humbles the toughest of them, the aging mechanic Jack, into a confessional humor. Suddenly he’s no longer trying to impress anybody.
Under the direction of Mark A. Rhea, the cast all scale their performances appropriately. The comfort and the contempt arising from their lives of small-town proximity registers. As Jack, Kevin Adams seems to resent both the enterprising Finbar’s success and the retiring Jim’s meekness in more or less equal measure, all of it a mask for his disappointment in himself. Townson is saddled with the least interesting part—and he’s the only one who doesn’t have a monologue—but he’s an affable presence, as bartenders should be. “Will you have one?” his patrons always ask when placing an order. “I’m debating whether to have one,” comes the inevitable reply. As Valerie, a still-young woman reeling from the kind of loss that ages you, Susan Marie Rhea manages to convey dual cravings for privacy and connection.
This is a story about the importance of stories, about how the ritual of narrative can make sadness and loneliness and disappointment bearable. In a world of mysterious happenings that beggar explanation, this is one inexplicable phenomena that turns out to be as reliable as the tides. Ultimately, it’s the stories that involve otherworldly encounters the least that haunt their tellers the most.