Industrial Strength

A year or two ago, the Industrial Arts Theatre Company took over an old movie house on Federal Boulevard. It's always a good thing when artists move into a funky neighborhood, and the Industrial group is no exception. But the company needs to put more thought and care into the venue. I realize money is a perennial problem, but a bit of carpentry, new carpeting, a coat of paint would work wonders. As it is, the building gives off the whiff of decay; the auditorium feels creaky and inhospitable. When the play begins, you discover that the audience is almost as brightly lit as the actors on stage, and for several long moments, it's difficult to concentrate on the play.

Fortunately, director Christine Brenner has assembled a group of talented actors for this production of The Weir. Conor McPherson's play is interesting, though it takes its time getting off the ground and the Irish locutions are sometimes hard to follow. The Weir is hyper-naturalistic. For long stretches, it's as if McPherson had simply framed a segment of the real goings-on in an Irish pub, retaining all of the regulars' fumblings, digressions and non sequiturs. You can sense how much concentration it takes for the actors to establish a sense of place on the over-lit stage. The set (designed by Brenner) is serviceable, but it doesn't establish the feeling of the dark old pub at the tail end of nowhere, a fire-lit cave in the darkness where a group of men meets nightly to drink, bicker, joke and reminisce.

Into this environment comes Valerie, a Dublin woman, escorted by the braggart Finbar Mack. Mack is the only one of the men who's married; he's showing Valerie around the place, and the others -- lonely bachelors all -- begrudge him this tiny privilege. Valerie's presence in the pub is galvanizing. The men treat her with deference and courtesy, parade their differences in front of her and regale her with ghost stories in the hopes of intriguing or frightening her. But Valerie has a ghost story of her own, and when she eventually tells it, it chills the heart.

You can't put an exact finger on what this play is about. It deals with human companionship, the need we have to hold each others' hands against the dark. It speaks of all our ghosts -- not only the shades of the departed, but loneliness and things left undone, words unsaid.

Arthur Goodman is convincingly Irish as Jack Mullen, a pub regular who's facing little but an alcoholic old age -- kindly, bitter and sentimental. His antagonist is Mack, whose marriage Mullen envies -- though presumably, given Mack's attentions to Valerie, it isn't entirely happy. As Mack, Wade P. Wood gives a vital portrayal of a man who can be crass and mean-spirited but also warmhearted. Mark David Nelson's bartender, Brendan, has a low-key charm punctuated by moments of clear annoyance. Is he grieving for his own future, reflected in the older men? Jack Koch, playing Jim, enters a little hunched over and wearing a round-brimmed hat and muddy boots. His slow, quiet characterization is one of the evening's most interesting, although I sometimes had trouble hearing his words. There is something irresistibly gentle and sweet about Laura Ione's Valerie. She listens intently to the others' talk, nodding sympathetically, giggling at their jokes, and she tells her story with a touching truthfulness. She does, however, seem to recover from the telling a little too quickly. Even though Valerie makes a point of regaining her composure, the events she's recounted should leave their stain on the rest of the evening.

These are all generous performances, and it's a tribute to Brenner's direction that each actor seems to listen to the others with genuine interest. Their interactions are clear and convincing, and the director sustains an unhurried pace that allows the play's subtle humor to percolate through.