Most would argue that theater is first and foremost storytelling. If that is true than Conor McPherson’s haunting play The Weir and Seanachai Theatre Company’s extraordinary production of it represent theater at its finest. I am constantly asked, “What’s the best show playing right now?” Normally this is a tough question, as there are always at least a few standout shows, but without hesitation The Weir is the most intricately compelling and brilliantly delivered play in current production.
Detailed to realistic perfection (by Robert Groth and Jennifer J. Thusing’s exceptional set design) and in the intimate quarters of the Irish American Heritage Center’s 3rd Floor Theatre, you find yourself completely immersed in this evening of casual drinks and stories at a rural Irish pub. You are not watching actors, but rather you are eavesdropping on people so richly rendered that you easily forget that this is a play. This is perhaps the most authentically enthralling ensemble assembled this year.
The night starts out lighthearted enough, as the characters trickle in for their evening pints. McPherson affords them all generous introductions and the acquainting is charming. We are observing nightly routines as much individual people. They are lonely, funny, idiosyncratic and warmhearted, not overly affectionate but still, these are people that you would be very lucky to count as friends. The chemistry is undeniable, heartwarming and riveting. You find yourself wanting to be there in the moment with them, ordering a drink and sharing the laughter and stories.
As is so often the case while drinking with friends, stories start to flow. McPherson writes peculiar monologues with no trace of contrivance and this cast delivers them with no evidence that they came from anywhere but their own lives. The stories start out as colloquial anecdotes, lulling us into a feeling false security, but when the local ghostly lore starts to creep in the mood subtly shift and then builds from eerie to disturbing.
I reviewed a solid production of The Weir a few years ago. What struck me as incredible was the writing but what didn’t work then and brilliantly works now is the change up at the end of the play. The script seemed to dramatically shift gears from a state of fear to an epilogue of sadness. In Seanachai’s production, marvelously directed by Matt Miller, this heartbreakingly touching ending serves to underline the loneliness and longing that is at the plays core. This is so deceptively complex that it proves a daunting task to successfully execute, but Miller guides his gifted cast with an understanding of the material that is as uncanny as the subject matter. Through close personal interactions they create a poignant portrait of individual isolation.
Miller’s dream cast magnificently delivers McPherson’s nightmares without sensational fanfare but to chilling effect. Dialect coach Barbara Zahora’s work with this talented ensemble eliminates any evidence that you are anywhere other than Ireland. The naturalness of their conversation surfaces breathtaking subtleties. As the gentlemen genially compete for attention, the volume of the dialogue rises. Animosities are easily assuaged with another drink, creating a playful ruckus without descending into chaos.
Brad Smith brings a politely quiet strength to his excellent performance of Brendan, the young bartender. Jeff Christian is endearingly awkward as Jim. Kevin Theis brings a wonderfully contrasting bravado into the mix of calm characters as Finbar. Sarah Wellington is simply lovely as Valerie. Valerie starts out as a welcomed visitor but quickly becomes an intricate part of the evening. Watching Wellington warmly take in the attention and develop connection with the other characters is just another beautiful aspect to this completely nuanced ensemble. They are all great listeners, the kind of listeners that silently and without motion fuel the revelations of each tale.
Of all of the many reasons to rush to see this absolute theatrical masterpiece, Brad Armacost’s incomparable performance tops the list. He is a master storyteller, organically captivating and gently commanding. Armacost is picture perfect authenticity on every level as Jack, the most regular of the pub’s regular clientele. He is explosively funny without the slightest hint of grandstanding. Armacost brings staggering levels of quiet dignity and underlying melancholy to his portrayal. His performance and the performance of the entire ensemble are as good as it gets. This production could just as easily be playing on the main stage at Steppenwolf.
Seanachai Theatre Company’s singularly spellbinding realization of The Weir possesses a subtly mystical chemistry that not only delivers a captivating night of theater, but also lifts the magical realism of Ireland up and out of County Sligo, carries it over the Atlantic and drops it down in the midst of Chicago. Perfect for this ghostly season or anytime, it is a stunning example of the best that Chicago has to offer. DO NOT MISS this extraordinary production.