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The Spirits Are Weak

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The Weir

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Erik Piepenburg

"The willingness to believe stories about . . . encounters with angels and other miraculous occurrences is considered a mark of enlightenment," writes social critic Wendy Kaminer with a skeptic's sneer in her book Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety. "These are not just tales to send a chill down your spine; they are tests of your character and emotional health."

If belief in angels proves one's psychic maturity, what does belief in evil indicate? If there are beings who bless our slumbers with magic dust every night, might there not be grinning demons who would lace that dust with arsenic? What does it mean that Satan was a fallen angel?

Such questions are seldom considered in The Weir, Conor McPherson's batty celebration of "ghosts, angels and faeries" now making its midwest premiere at Steppenwolf after a successful Broadway run. McPherson, a 29-year-old Irishman with a dozen or so plays under his belt (most notably This Lime Tree Bower), takes a high dive into the waters of supernaturalist storytelling, combining the tradition of talky Irish-pub plays with eerie but heartwarming tales of the paranormal. The result is an essentially happy work that asks the audience to embrace painless truths about the human condition, though these shadowy fables exploit our fear of death and fascination with the outlandish. It's as if Unsolved Mysteries had met The Iceman Cometh—except in this case O'Neill's pipe dreams are replaced with angels at your door.

Set in a warmly lit pub (meticulously rendered in Todd Rosenthal's multilevel set) on a stormy night in a small Irish town, The Weir opens with crusty bachelor Jack and soft-spoken mate Jim trading barbs, laughs, and pints with tavern owner Brendan as they await the arrival of their buddy Finbar and new gal in town Valerie. The three are leery of Finbar's motives—he's married and wears LA-style outfits now that he's moved to the big city—and unsure what to expect of Valerie. But when this sweet-natured character arrives, the true play begins: under Chris Binder's moody lighting, the old friends take turns telling ghost stories, introducing themselves to the new arrival. Jack describes strange soft knocks and apparitions at the house of an old, possibly insane woman; Finbar tries to explain the uncanny appearance of a dead woman miles away from her home; and in a truly bloodcurdling monologue, Jim recounts his meeting with the ghost of a man—a pervert even in death—who tried to worm his way into the grave of a young girl.

The alcohol flows as freely as the bullshit as the men alternate between skepticism and conviction. The stories get progressively more personal until finally it's Valerie's turn to share. That her story—the most personal of all—will give the play its real human face is predictable from her first words; the surprise is the emotional punch it packs.

McPherson is a wonderfully gifted teller of tales in the tradition of Irish folklore. But his stories are sometimes mawkish, and his framework is flimsy. On their own, these tales might be vivid and evocative—a staged reading of each account could well be spine-tingling. But McPherson doesn't quite know how to unite them and do their storytellers justice, leaving the viewer with great fodder for the campfire but little feeling for the characters.

Like McPherson, director Amy Morton does little to show us the play's dark side in this 90-minute intermissionless production. Though each character lives with the knowledge of these unexplained wicked or good-hearted phenomena, we never have a sense of the horror they surely must feel. And these messy, rightfully disturbing situations are betrayed by a feel-good ending.

McPherson told American Theatre magazine that The Weir (a fence or dam described in the play as used "for regulating water for generating power") is bred of "a world, half imagined, half rooted in reality just about visible to me in the dark. A world of lost afternoons in the suburban and rural bars. Of closing your eyes in dim light, with a community who couldn't or wouldn't judge you."

He's undoubtedly sincere about this refreshingly positive inspiration, but something has disappeared in the realization of his idea. A portentous but supportive atmosphere makes for soothing cosmology but awfully wishy-washy theater. It's likely that the serenity of McPherson's characters and setting is partly the result of his wish to bring people together. But one leaves the theater not so much transformed by reflections on the afterlife as yearning for a clearer understanding of how these Casper-like ghost stories impact the characters—and how they speak to us. Jim's hair-raising story about the dead pervert may undercut any wishful thinking that the uncanny is inherently good, and Valerie's tale touches on unthinkable tragedy. But these two narratives are just oblique reminders of Irish folklore's dark mystical powers.

To Morton's credit, this seemingly effortless show is accessible and intimate, as if you were eavesdropping on a chat between buddies. It may be too cozy in fact: I saw nodding heads throughout the theater during each monologue. And this production's air of easy familiarity—the rest of the cast sits still for each character's story, for example—is part of its uncomplicated warmth, which also undermines McPherson's darker shades.

Nonetheless, the cast's handling of suspense and pacing pay testament to McPherson's talent for exquisite storytelling. Alan Wilder is a study in actorly control and intuition as Jack, especially during his ghost story and later in a gorgeously written scene about a bartender's careful fixing of a sandwich. With stammering unease, Larry Brandenburg perfectly portrays the sad-natured Jim, and John Sierros is solid as pub owner Brendan, an underwritten character whose real value is revealed in the play's final forced moments.

Rob Riley and Amy Warren, however, fail to click as Finbar and Valerie. Riley keeps his characterization at a high pitch while Warren underplays her role, a suitable choice until she reaches her difficult monologue, when she hardly seems upset. (Overall the accents are well done, although the deliciously fricative "fuck" is schizophrenically treated, rendered as both "foak" and "feck.")

The Weir may seem an odd choice for a holiday-season show, but its compassionate ghost stories and theatrical poetry might liberate the Scrooges among us—if only the reality of Scrooge were acknowledged. Less sugarcoating and more horror would make for a better understanding of the true spirit of the holidays.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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