The Weir, Conor McPherson’s exploration of Irish ghost stories, begins with a pair of classic Irish horror stories. First, and most deadly, the Guinness tap is broken. And then another scare: a woman—gasp!—is going to be dropping by the pub as part of the tour of the tiny seaside village she’s just moved to from the bright lights of Dublin.
These opening twists are played for laughs, of course, in Scena Theatre’s “genuine Irish production” of McPherson’s 1997 play directed by Robert McNamara. The show, which opened on March 19, is the second local staging of the work in as many months. Keegan Theatre’s version closed March 13. I didn’t see that one.
Jack, a burly mechanic pushing 60, is so attached to the local public house that it is he, not the barkeep, who first enters the clapboard tavern. The actor playing Jack, Gordon Fulton (Irish), needs no words to express his dismay with the broken Guinness tap—his audible grunt is plenty for the indignity of drinking the black stuff from a bottle, and he’ll leave the Harp draught “to the Harp drinkers,” thank you very much. Brendan, a pony-tailed young man played by Eric Lucas (not Irish), commiserates upon his arrival. Another regular customer, Jim, is fine to drink lager, so long as it’s chased with a “small one” of Jameson.
The shit-shooting turns to the evening’s big to-do: the imminent arrival of their well-heeled drinking buddy Finbar, who is escorting around town the Dublin woman to whom he just rented a house. Jack and Brendan would prefer to keep the bar a no-girls-allowed zone, free of nosy big-city visitors sticking their heads in to check out the natives. “That’s the way cunts always go about their business,” Brendan posits. These men are single.
As the boisterous Finbar, Brian Mallon (Irish) is obnoxious in that he can’t hide his relative success in life. He owns a local hotel, makes real estate deals, and he’s married, though in his cream suit and Oxford shirt with one button undone, he could also be the guy who slips off his wedding band in the restroom. Not that he does; his escort of Valerie, the new woman in town, is strictly friendly. And he can hold his own with the drinking.
The actress playing Valerie, Kerry Waters (not Irish), is reserved but eager to learn about her new digs. A photo of the local weir sets off the first ghost story—Jack spins a tale about a band of fairies facing eviction from their riverbed to make way for the small dam’s construction. Finbar has to one-up this, and retorts with a story about an apparition compelling him to quit smoking.
It’s when Jim, the sheepish barfly played by Barry McEvoy (Irish), tells his sorrowful tale that humor is drained from the scene. No longer are they trying to take the piss out of each other; now there is genuine horror to share. Valerie’s account of how she came to leave Dublin for the countryside is the worst kind of personal experience that haunts the final half-hour of The Weir, no matter how brightly it ends. But it also brought out the evening’s best acting. Though Jack is a proud loner, his quick bond with Valerie is protective, almost fatherly. When another character makes an ill-timed comment, no matter how well intentioned, Fulton compresses in his chair, allowing his steam to redden his doughy face and shiny pate before exploding in a fury of Celtic rage. Blows are nearly exchanged, though Jack’s monologues are usually finished with a self-directed quip like “ach, I’m just a cantankerous old fucker.”
But the gruff demeanor and easy deployment of choice words is in tune with McPherson’s In-Yer-Face school, which has dominated the Irish stage since the late 1990s. Churlish men swimming in drink and cursing up a storm? Scena gets it right.
Scene Theatre’s The Weir runs through April 24 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Shows are Thursday through Sunday. $25-$33.