Storytelling assumes an exalted status in “The Weir,” the new play from 26-year-old Irishman Conor McPherson, whose own theatrical ascendancy makes quite a story itself. In previous plays “This Lime Tree Bower” and (earlier this year) “St. Nicholas,” McPherson presented himself as a master of the monologue who had yet to prove he could write for several characters at once. With “The Weir,” he couples a love of extended speech with the canny sense of interplay American spectators might associate with the work of August Wilson. The play marks not just an authorial breakthrough but, in Ian Rickson’s exquisite production, a sustained act of bravura best caught in the Court’s tiny Theater Upstairs, since its musical calibrations are unlikely ever to be better served.
The title refers to a kind of dam (and to a specific photograph on the wall of designer Rae Smith’s atmospheric pub), but its characters share a need to talk that simply can’t be stopped up. In a rural Irish bar presided over by Brendan (Brendan Coyle), the locals are gathering for their customary pints. The day’s news is the arrival of Valerie (Julia Ford), a Dubliner who has taken possession of a local house that has sat idle for five years. Her guide to the community is Finbar (Gerard Horan), a married man on the make whose go-getter life is viewed as an implicit rebuke by his fellow drinkers, all of whom are single.
Valerie distinguishes herself by ordering wine in a room given over to beer and to the unspoken rituals encoded in every murmur of assent — director Rickson makes each “mmm” hum — that to the men are second nature. Before long, they are telling Valerie tales: ghost stories, mostly, and evocative of a society dependent upon the very folklore that its inhabitants are quick to dismiss as “old cod.” Sad-eyed Jack (Jim Norton) spins a well-rehearsed yarn about the onetime inhabitant of Valerie’s new home, while Finbar offers a competing tale involving a Ouija board and a family spooked out of town. Mama’s boy Jim (Kieran Ahern) ups the hallucinatory ante with a grave-digging anecdote that turns Jack’s vaunted “bit of local color” into something off-color and obscene.
So it goes, until, to the men’s surprise, Valerie turns out to have a story all her own — a true-life dispatch from beyond the grave that tests the auditors’ compassion and provokes a second story from Jack allowing a glimpse of the living ghost that the self-described “cantankerous” old man has become.
These narrative confessionals are gorgeously served by performers Ford and Norton amid a company whose ability to listen finds an empathic soul mate in their playwright. In its quiet, unforced way, “The Weir” gets at the heart of why we tell stories, while proffering a hypnotic requiem for an Ireland unhappy with its superstition-laden past and uneasy with its market-economy present. It’s a large and lasting play writ purposefully small. And in this production, it’s virtually flawless.