A night of chilling ghost stories in ‘The Weir’

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 3/7/24

As a boy, playwright Conor McPherson would leave Dublin to holiday in rural Gaelic Ireland. He spent time with his grandfather, who told him ghost stories.

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A night of chilling ghost stories in ‘The Weir’


As a boy, playwright Conor McPherson would leave Dublin to holiday in rural Gaelic Ireland. He spent time with his grandfather, who told him ghost stories. Unfortunately, grandfather died without seeing his fanciful tales take shape in McPherson's breakthrough play, "The Weir" now running at Old Academy Players.

Named after the nearby hydroelectric plant, The Weir is a small pub where a few single men gather to commiserate and seek solace. It is not quite a pub because The Weir is more like an appendage to the farmhouse of Brendan (Norman Burnosky III). It lacks all the fuss and fiddles of an ordinary pub, giving only a few men a place to gossip and toss the "Bullocks," (a term for "nonsense" - program notes include a list of Irish culture-isms).

You meet the pub's two regulars, Jack (Stephen Negro) who runs an auto garage and his assistant, Jim (Vail Gualtieri). They gossip, talk about horse races and make snide remarks about Finbar (Ryan Kirchner), the only married man. A successful businessman, Finbar left County Leitrim to set up shop in a nearby town where he prospers in the buying and selling of real estate.

Then Finbar enters the pub with a new babe on his arm, and Kirchner captures his greasy turmoil. Finbar just sold a house to Valerie. He takes a giddy interest in his trophy customer and wants to parade her about. Undercurrents of sexual vibrancy infuse this all-male pub-house and the chit-chat takes a competitive turn.

The small stage at Old Academy suits "The Weir" perfectly. Under the set design of director Christopher Wunder, the pub breaks the fourth wall without trying to do so. The set is dark and full of burnished wood. Shiny taps behind the bar top announce the local waters and dusty County Leitrim photographs grace the far wall.    

Wunder's spotlight lingers on the storytellers as they compete in telling spooky stories drawn from old Irish legends. Jack explains that Valerie's new house is built on "Fairy Road," and spirits knock about at night with wicked intentions. Finbar tells tales of Ouija boards and murderous pursuits. Jim's graveyard story of marauding ghosts is full of lurid imprints.  

Entertaining in themselves, these self-contained monologues make up the core of the play. Actor accents sometimes make it hard to understand all the details - you wish they did not try to be so "rural Irish" - but you grasp the essence of their spooky accounts. Afterward, the men are a tad crestfallen, as though they feared they unwittingly exposed their inner feelings towards Valerie.

Indeed they have, and each man apologizes to Valerie for ghoulish exuberance. But Valerie is not offended at all. She has an aura of mystery and you already sense that she is estranged and seeks a countryside escape. The booze-warmed tales inspire her to finally tell her own story.

All night you only know Valerie (Lauren Kirchner) as the woman in the long red dress. She catches your eye as she moves about the small pub, decorous and erotic in equal measure --- sometimes irked in the manner of a captive audience, but sometimes in rapt attention at the tales of her strange new neighbors. 

Now she turns her back to them all and slumps against the far wall. Kirchner nicely balances choking despair with Valerie's need to tell the truth in exact detail and tells a tale that shatters pub rituals  This story, too, features reports of spooky sounds and supernatural events. 

But in Valerie's case, you wonder if that is because the pain of real-life events caused her to lose her mind. Valerie's suffering prods everyone. The men shuffle shyly in place, respectful of tragedy that goes beyond anything they know. One by one they leave the pub in an admonished state. 

Only Jack lingers behind. Stephen Negro is picturesque as an aging man in a baggy dress suit.  Spurred by Valerie, he finally feels free. With the relieved and exhausted air of a man at the confessional, he tells Valerie about how he loved deeply as a young man but did not dare to follow his heart.

"The Weir" premiered in 1997 and has achieved staying power in the modern canon. Lacking any plot, McPherson relies on storytelling, and the buildup to the finale shows the power of storytelling in drama. Sharing in the authenticity of Valerie's suffering frees the men from sexual pettiness, stops their slide into a living death and opens up the possibility of redemption.

McPherson is also concerned with the legacy of Irish history, unhappy with its mythic past and troubled present. While this problem --- the chasm between "the good old days" and the deficiencies of one's own time --- has a special tang in Ireland, it also has a universal ring.

Old Academy Players is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane. "The Weir" will run through Mar 17. Tickets available at 215-843-1109.