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WELCOME, NEW TRADITION: TheatreNOW hits the Irish mark in time for St. Patrick’s Day with ‘The Weir’

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For the last several years TheatreNOW has offered an Irish wake as their St. Patrick’s Day festivities. “The Weir” is a welcome departure…

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TheatreNOW is getting into the St. Patrick’s Day mood with the opening of Connor McPherson’s “The Weir.” Set in a rural Irish pub, owned by Brendan (Blake Howard), “The Weir” begins with regulars gathering around to recount their day. Jack (Joseph Renton Jr.), the local car mechanic, is so much a regular he pours himself a beer while waiting for Brendan to appear. They are joined by local handyman Jim (Jamie Davenport).  Apparently, Finbar (Jacob Keohane) local real-estate mogul, has been seen driving around with Valerie (Anna Gamel), a new transplant to their remote area, who is beautiful and reportedly single. The men gripe about Finbar’s behavior—him being a married man and all. Clearly, the appearance of Valerie is going to throw a wrench into the works of their little town.

CHEERS TO THEATRE: St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated right (in a bar) with TheatreNOW’s ‘The Weir.’ Courtesy photo.

CHEERS TO THEATRE: St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated right (in a bar) with TheatreNOW’s ‘The Weir.’ Courtesy photo.

Enter Finbar, the big man around town. He is loud, gregarious and impressed with himself. For all his noise, the guys are unruffled. Men drinking and showing off to each other—in front of a pretty woman? It’s nothing new for them. Though Finbar doesn’t grace them with his presence very much since he bought a bar of his own, there is still camaraderie bred of the men’s shared history. They goad him into telling a story about a terrifying experience that changed his life.

Keohane rides the waves of emotion with agility, from expansive bravado to vulnerability to boisterous behavior. They wash over him and his companions with an impact too big to be confined to one person. It also means he can’t just tell one story—and once he has bared himself to Valerie, he has to push everyone else to do the same to make up for his moment of genuine and gentle accountability He’s entertaining but exhausting, and to an armchair psychiatrist he would take 5 minutes to diagnose. The poor man’s wife must spend all day reassuring him he is the most important person who has ever lived.

By contrast, Davenport’s Jim is a quiet man with a simple world. His sweet, open face and calm, deep voice are probably the two pieces that make his character gel. We get a kind, simple handyman with a set of beliefs that, though unsophisticated, are genuine and considerate. His ghost story is chilling; he undersells it, which almost gives it more power.

Then there is the old grey man of the bunch, Jack. Renton gives us a crotchety old fogy who can laugh but only when picking at other’s scabs. Late in the evening, when Valerie asks, he does tell a ghost story all his own, certainly one of loss—with a ghostly specter that does haunt his life and the importance of a good bartender to keep it all going. He delivers it with dry wit and it fits the text. He’s more of a resigned philosopher than the beefy car-mechanic stereotype. Looking at Valerie, who compared to him is so young and still has so much life in front of her, the audience can almost feel his heart break for her.

Blake’s Brendan is a sweet, somewhat shy fellow who appreciates the calm and beauty of rural life. Blake has possibly one of the harder assignments on stage: As the bartender he is everyone else’s audience, and doesn’t get to regale the company with a story. He is left with the task of listening and reacting to everyone else while tending bar. He is never still, always a rag or a glass in his hand, and scanning the pine to see what his customers need. His attention and reaction to storytellers is as much the power of the story as the tellers themselves. The consummate host, he seems to have stumbled into the perfect profession. But he is clearly intrigued, pleased and slightly shaken by the appearance of Valerie, especially in relation to his old-time buddies.

The men have a short hand in conversation from years of living and sharing the same spaces and experiences. But Valerie doesn’t understand their subtext. It is Anna Gamel’s Valerie who owns the stage and the men. She has been sweet, polite and kind while listening to their stories, but as she takes center stage to start talking about her life before relocating to their small, remote village, she unveils a depth far beyond what any of them could imagine when mocking outsiders with money in search of “peace and quiet.” She bides her time, and when she judges they believe in ghosts enough to believe her story, she unwinds with one; it cuts deep to the marrow. Gamel doesn’t emote or ham it up; there is a pleading in her voice, the need to be heard, to be believed, that makes her so moving. Her ghost story is the climax of the show, the dramatic moment many playwrights may have chosen to close. But what makes “The Weir” really powerful as a script is the falling action and resolution (if we can call it a resolution).

It took a few minutes for the actors to find their feet on opening night, but once they were in, they were in. They admirably sustained accents for the entirety of the evening (Irish accents can be incredibly difficult). Maintaining them for hours at a time can be even harder (or, as a friend pointed out, not skewing into a Jamaican accent a la Miss Cleo is the real goal).

For the last several years TheatreNOW has offered an Irish wake as their St. Patrick’s Day festivities. “The Weir” is a welcome departure: It has an actual storyline and is not focused on audience participation, games and songs. Therefore, it is more of what one would think of as traditional theatre rather than experiential entertainment. But the script combines many elements that appeal to TheatreNOW. Set in a bar, it works with the dinner-theatre ambiance, and with only one set, it puts the focus on the performers and story rather than technical details.
And who doesn’t like a good ghost story? Well, this show has several to offer, each very different from the last.

Chef Denise Gordon complements it with mouthwatering delights. It really is not a surprise to leave the theatre happily stuffed. Case in point: salmon sliders. Salmon cakes made of both fresh and smoked salmon came with red onion and a sundried-tomato cream cheese spread. They’re so darned cute they look like little White Castle burgers.  And, yes, it melted in my mouth, being creamy and savory all at once. It’s paired with a tangy, mustard-based slaw that tastes too good to be healthy.

Though, the Irish vegetable soufflé captured my heart: cheese, eggs, vegetables—my favorite three things all in one place. My soufflés are never this light and fluffy, and how Gordon got the mushrooms in suspension instead of a clump in the bottom is a mystery. Add in a few soda muffins, and the ambiance of the Irish pub on stage, the audience gets transported.

The Weir
Through Mar. 24
Fri. and Sat., 6:30 p.m.
Tickets: $18 (show only) – $42 (includes three-course dinner)
19 S. 10th St.

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