Nice, on an overcast sticky day, to slip into a theatre seat and feel like you’ve just entered a homey pub somewhere in the middle of Ireland. The wind is howling just outside the door, and the pub is a welcoming shelter, well worn, softly lit, a warm glowing fire in the corner. The set and lighting designers (Charlie Corcoran and Michael Gottlieb respectively) have accomplished a remarkably strong emotional energy as well as a beautifully designed stage. I was pulled in by the magic of the place at once.
What is the place? It is a pub by a weir, a dam in the river meant to regulate the flow of the water. The word goes back to the 12th century, first noted in Germany before traveling across Scandinavia and finally finding a place in the English language. And along this damned river is purported to be a road used by local fairies -- fairies in the Irish sense of the word -- spirits, ghosts and the like. The lads who gather at the pub are natives, connected to the land. The pub owner Brendan, lives in the farmhouse upstairs behind the bar and owns the surrounding acres of land where he grazes his cows. Jack and Jim, single men who seem to get by doing all sorts of odds and ends and playing the horses, come around for their pints and “small ones”, whiskey shots, to share the general talk of the day. Finbar Mack has left the immediate area and become an inn keeper, but this evening he is bringing around a young woman, Valerie, to see the place, she having just moved from Dublin to a house nearby.
The cast is excellent and they give us the quick, humorous, high context dialog with the cadence and timing that makes it such a pleasure to listen to good story tellers. Some of the actors have names suggesting they are Irish, but even if all are not, they all belong in this pub. Billy Carter is gentle and amiable as Brendan. Dan Butler as Jack is the feisty, older man in the group. John Keating, tall and youthful, is Jim, a colorful man who takes good care of his elderly mother. The entrepreneur Finbar Mack is played by Sean Gormley and Valerie, the newcomer, is played by Tessa Klein. They are a spirited and simpatico ensemble.
The action of the play centers around the arrival of Valerie, who Finbar has put it upon himself to show around and introduce to the natives. Her presence inspires the men’s excitement and eagerness to please. They want to behave themselves and put on good faces. They get to drinking and talking and telling tales of mysteries and coincidences, none beyond explanation, but spooky, tragic, unfathomable -- the stuff of good stories. When Valerie tells her own difficult story, she can because they have softened the ground for her.
The playwright Conor McPherson, has such an ear and feel for these fun loving, generous people and their colorful familiarity. He lets us get to know them, and for once a gathering of men where no one is the bad guy or the bully. Their relationships are more subtle and accepting. Perhaps due in part to their pints and small ones, none are particularly angry or unhappy with their lot. They seem to care about one another, love their families and most of all they are connected, down through the generations to this land and its magic. If you’ve ever been to Ireland, you know it can have that effect. Near the end of the play, Valerie, who knows no one and is coming off a tragedy in her life, is already becoming a part of their fabric, and you know she will be looked after.
The production is directed by Ciaran O’Reilly who has done an excellent job; creating the atmosphere and deeply rooted connectedness of a place and its locals. Perhaps this is a fading way of life, certainly it is unimaginable in an urban setting, but as good theatre can suspend one reality and give you a taste of another, this evening has the power to transport you.