The Denver Victorian Playhouse production of The Weir is the third I've seen in six years, and it's easily the best and most moving. One reason for this is director Terry Dodd's strong and nuanced sense of place. The play is set in a rural pub in County Leitrim, Ireland, where the winds howl against the windows in a way that sometimes seems almost Halloween-comical, a place populated by ghosts less terrifying than the blind, uncaring darkness outside. Photographs on the wall attest to a human history, and a few men congregate here nightly for companionship. With the water from the weir dashing down the hillside outside and a fire burning in the pub's center, the scene feels almost primal.
At the beginning, the naturalistic, Irish-inflected dialogue is hard to understand -- particularly since the acoustics in this intimate auditorium are not ideal. If anyone sitting near you sighs, shifts or twists a program, the sound can drown the words from the stage. (The seats could have a better rake, too. I've often thought this would be a gem of a theater were some beneficent soul to sink money into a full-scale renovation.) But once you've settled down and become familiar with the characters' rhythms and repetitions, the play draws you inexorably in.
A woman enters the cozy male enclave. Valerie is escorted by Finbar, the one local man who's made good financially, and the only one who's married. She has moved to this remote area for reasons we will learn later, but in the meantime, her presence in the pub is galvanizing. The three habitués compete for her attention, bicker, tease each other, chide Finbar for being with a woman not his wife, and regale her with stories. You can see how longstanding and well-worn their drinking rituals are when Valerie disrupts them by asking for a glass of white wine -- a request that bartender Brendon is sure he can fulfill if he could just locate the one bottle that's been around for a decade or so. "Vintage," he remarks, setting it in front of her. The mild panic that ensues when Valerie asks to use the toilet gives us some idea of the state that facility's in.
4201 Hooker Street
Presented by Denver Victorian Playhouse through November 4, 303-433-4343, www.denvervic.com
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In some respects, The Weir is a tone poem, a low-key slice of life. The script can seem ragged or even aimless, but playwright Conor McPherson has actually woven it with great care, so that one narrative builds on its predecessors, and the characters' gestures and comments accumulate significance. There's a long Irish tradition of people gathering in the evening and amusing each other with songs, jokes and stories, a form of communion immortalized in the James Joyce short story "The Dead." In The Weir, the men begin telling ghost stories. The first was told to Jack by a woman who was once a regular at the pub and involves angry fairies knocking at the doors and windows of a house that had been built on their fairy road -- the very house, it turns out, that Valerie has just bought. Finbar provides a spooky account of the events that led him to stop smoking. Jim, who is slower, quieter and more confused than the others, living devotedly with his elderly mother, provides a less innocent fever dream.
Valerie's a good sport. She listens, laughs and sips her wine, though you can see that her response to some of what she's heard is more pained and ambivalent than she wants to let on. When she finally tells her own ghost story, it opens an abyss so cold and deep you feel it will swallow them all.
The last narrative isn't a ghost story at all, as the elderly Jack speaks about how he blew his one opportunity for love. The darkness presses against the window, and we realize that the real horror comes not from anything supernatural, but from loneliness and the loss of human connection. "We'll all be ghosts soon enough," Jack says. Slowly, person by person, the group leaves the fragile, lighted shell of the pub.
Set designer Sarah Roshan has given the awkward stage a sense of depth and contour, creating an authentic-looking pub that does justice to this quietly beautiful production. Under Dodd's sensitive direction and led by the luminous Laura Norman as Valerie, the cast exhibits not a single weak link. Valerie's story could easily be a sobfest, but Norman tells it with a restraint more devastating than a fury of weeping. Even when she says nothing, she's the effortless focus of the action, listening to the others with humor and generosity. Pete Nelson's Jack is a funny and sometimes touching old codger. Wade P. Wood has played Finbar before, always well, but now he's clearly become one with the character; his performance has grown quieter and less showy, but far more interesting. Brendon, the bartender, isn't as talky as his pubmates, and he doesn't have a monologue of his own, but Joel Sutliff gives him a robust charm and the matter-of-fact empathy you'd expect from a good bartender. Watching him, you wonder what he makes of the older men's lives -- and what he will do with his own. Before his entrance, the inarticulate Jim has been described by Jack and Brendon as someone with more going on upstairs than you'd expect, and Gregg Adams's characterization fits that description. You can see the thoughts churning as he nurses his beer, sometimes standing only to sit down again in defeat, looking at Valerie with a mixture of uncertainty and yearning.