By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Irish playwright Conor McPherson is often paired with his equally successful enfant terrible peer Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane), but McPherson is slowly overtaking his more reclusive artistic brother by single-handedly reviving the idea of storytelling as theater--or at least bursting the membrane that separates the two forms. Presumably, everything that happens on any stage is part of telling a story, unless the artists are concerned with subverting or obliterating the narrative. But what McPherson has done repeatedly with his plays is show how story and storyteller reflect each other, even if the tale being told only tangentially involves the teller. The idea is that, in relating events that don't transpire in front of us and may not have even happened, the one who does the relating reveals loads of character information about himself by inadvertently exposing the narrowness of his perspective.
This business of letting an audience see someone through that person's blind spots is a tricky method of characterization, and even constitutes a lazy alternative, one could argue, since re-creating the communication methods and patterns between people is one of the playwright's most daunting tasks. But we can learn a lot about ourselves--and be entertained in the bargain--while watching people reveal themselves unintentionally, and McPherson has shown an empathy for them in even the most fantastic, destructive scenarios. His one-man show St. Nicholas features a drunken hack Irish theater critic who hangs out with a charismatic vampire and lures young women from cast parties into the vampire's lair. This Lime Tree Bower showcases two brothers and a best friend who address the audience with stories about each other involving rape, theft, and a yearning for affection among heterosexual men that may be impossible. Both shows implicitly evoke the Scheherazade fable, with a subtle difference: MacPherson's men don't tell stories to survive, but to exist. If they can't rattle off a good yarn, they may simply disappear.
This business of spinning tales to stave off emptiness permeates The Weir, given a production of restrained and remarkable beauty by Fort Worth's Allied Theatre Group. When some people hear that the play concerns a small group of drinkers exchanging ghost stories while huddled inside a rural Irish pub on a winter night, I'm afraid they'll come expecting gotcha! moments or effects--elaborate death's head makeup or flickering lights or sudden noises designed to make you wet yourself. The Weir isn't scary, at least not in that way; Director Jerry Russell has wrought a small miracle by sustaining a mood of eeriness that dives gracefully backward into sadness. If this show terrifies us, it's with the hard realities that bedevil some people to the point of suicide. We're born alone and we die alone; we can never love someone so much that he or she is rescued from suffering and death, and true love itself may be the cruelest trick to play on decaying mortals. What Conor MacPherson and Allied Theatre's masterful cast have done is casually but irrevocably demonstrate how loneliness breeds fear and vice versa. If you're single at the moment and unhappy about it, let me suggest you avoid The Weir as escapist entertainment. It hints that a lack of sustaining love in life may be our first introduction to what death is like.
Indeed, there's an undercurrent of sexual competition among three bachelors--mechanic Jack (Jim Covault), his assistant Jim (Joe Alberti), bar owner Brendan (Jakie Cabe), and married, successful businessman Finbar (R. Bruce Elliott)--for the attention of Valerie (Holly Hickman), a young, single woman who has just bought a nearby house from Finbar. As a neighborly gesture, he brings her into Brendan's pub, the first woman to enter in a while, and conversation about the history of the area eventually turns to stories about supernatural manifestations. To give away too much about these tales would be to rob the actors of some of the quiet power of their performances, but suffice to say Conor McPherson has the ability to locate just the right detail--the knock that happens too low on the door to be an adult or a child visitor, the ghost on the staircase watching the only person in the room who can see it--to creep you out. Additionally, each story centers on a child, because McPherson knows that bringing children so close to death triggers an automatic unease in many, especially parents.
Holly Hickman as Valerie, the young woman who has moved from Dublin to escape a sorrowful past, brings an early climax to a very informally structured show when she tells of a telephone call from a loved one she cannot hope to help. Hickman had me locked tightly into a most peculiar emotional combination--I was goose-fleshy and teary-eyed at the same time--that probably best describes the strange, anguished loveliness that flickers throughout The Weir. Allied Theatre's calm stunner embodies the old maxim that staring into the abyss isn't nearly as unsettling as having the abyss stare back at you.