BWW Review: THE WEIR at Burning Coal Theatre Stirs Up Haunting Tale of Woe
What makes a good play? A musical can hook you with a snappy showstopper, but a play, on the other hand, is all about the language, rhythm, and story. And some of the best contemporary plays I've seen of late are more character-driven than plot-driven and an exploration into the daily life of the everyman, muddling through just like the rest of us, trying to find himself or reconcile with his inner demons.
I suppose it is the fine art of storytelling, as well as the astute observation of the ordinary while skating between the supernatural and the mundane, that makes Burning Coal's current production of Conor McPherson's THE WEIR so engrossing.
In THE WEIR, regulars of a small Irish pub meet for a pint and to share ghostly stories. But on this dark and stormy night, they are joined by a newcomer, who has a haunting tale of her own to tell.
The play premiered in 1997 at London's Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. It later won the Olivier Award for Best Play and earned McPherson The London Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright. Two years later, it opened to critical acclaim on Broadway.
In this production, Tom Burch's imposing atmospheric set does a great job of creating a sense of place. Postcards dot the walls along with framed black and white photographs that provide a gateway for the regaling of spooky stories rooted in Irish legends and lore.
Simon Kaplan gives an admirable performance as one of the bar regulars Jack, though he does seem to stumble over his lines a wee bit. His character has perhaps the most defined arc of the piece, and Kaplan convincingly rides the wave from presenting Jack as an ornery, old barfly to gingerly revealing his more vulnerable side.
David Dossey plays Finbar, a local businessman who is renting one of his small cottages to the evasive newcomer, Valerie. The banter and rising tension between his character and Kaplan's works to keep the audience engaged.
Jordan Wolfe as the barkeep Brendan seems fully immersed in the production, while Emily Rieder approaches the character of Valerie with the intensity and urgency of a school girl waiting for her turn in line. Once she is given the opportunity for her big reveal, it is potent, poignant, wholehearted and worth the wait.
But perhaps the most riveting performance in this production is that of Lucius Robinson, who plays Jim, the village handyman and another frequenter of the pub. Robinson's unsettling portrayal of Jim is so fixed, muted, and understated, it's almost hypnotic and eerie.
Director Jerome Davis peels back every nuanced layer of McPherson's play methodically deconstructing it to reveal its humanity. And Davis may be somewhat of an expert in deconstructing McPherson's tales of woe having produced more plays by this playwright than any other "not named William Shakespeare or David Edgar."
Davis' timing in revisiting this play and producing it a second time after 18 years is telling too. McPherson wrote THE WEIR in 1997 and Burning Coal first produced it three years later, before the advent of social media. It was a time when people valued face to face interactions, lingered over a pot of coffee or a couple of tall ones, and didn't curate their stories through filtered photos online.
And perhaps that's the allure of THE WEIR that endures after twenty years. It's a throwback to the old school way of thinking, relating, and storytelling that is steeped in Irish tradition and runs deep through McPherson's veins. It is also introspective in the analysis of how we, much like these characters, have a desperate need to connect, share our own stories, and seek solace and comfort through the approval of others.
THE WEIR runs through December 16th. For more information on visit www.burningcoal.org.
Photo by David Rauch.