Opening Oct. 28, a few days before Halloween, a play with an odd-sounding title such as "The Weir" might naturally be about ghosts. That would be right, although the play demonstrates that not all ghosts are of the supernatural variety. "Weir" is an Old English term referring to a dam used to raise the water level or divert a stream. Here it highlights the way people withhold their emotions from themselves and others, and how that particular dam can be breached -- with the help of a few ghost stories, of course.
The Elden Street Players of Herndon have opened their season with Irish playwright Conor McPherson's career-making play, which was London's big hit in 1997-98 before it moved to Broadway. McPherson puts four aging, rustic men and a young urban woman in a pub on a cold, dark night in the remote Irish countryside. Along with the Jamesons and the Harps, ghost stories soon start flowing. The pub regulars may be trying to impress the attractive newcomer at first, but when she finally opens up to tell her ghost story, she stirs emotion within these men's psyches that has been previously dammed up, and the four late-night yarn-spinners end up changed.
Well, that's one way to look at it. The other way is to simply experience "The Weir" as an absorbing few hours spent in a pub listening to witty tales rich with Irish country ambiance. Either way, it's quite enjoyable: Elden Street has mounted yet another highly polished, effective evening of theater. The intricately detailed, solid pub setting from Tod L. Kerr fills the entire theater floor, making the Industrial Strength Theatre feel like the real thing, even if the beer is nonalcoholic and the whiskey is really apple juice.
The ghost stories are not round-the-campfire horror legends. These are subtle, psychologically intriguing stories from each storyteller's personal experience, which adds to their chill. The five cast members enhance the experience with subtle, character-driven performances rich in authenticity and without evidence of theatrical artifice.
Veteran actor Al Fetske is Jack, the pub's anchorman who holds forth as if in his own living room. Fetske gingerly takes us behind the facade of a smiling yarn-spinner to share a palpable sense of regret over choices he made that have left him alone in the world. Tom Flatt is Brendan, the financially struggling pub owner who serves as a sounding board for the others. Rich Klare mines the character of Jim and comes up with a gloomy interior life that peers out through his whiskey-shot eyes despite his outwardly genial nature.
They're joined on a blustery night by Finbar, a real estate entrepreneur played with a sense of cold detachment by Mick Tinder, and his client, the enigmatic Dubliner Valerie, portrayed by Jennifer Robison.
Finbar has been buying up local properties, which creates tension between him and the other men, who fear their old-time way of life is dissolving. The apprehension stimulates uneasy memories of spooky events. Valerie, who has just bought from Finbar a house the men claim is haunted, shyly enters this masculine realm, with Robison slowly building up her energy until it is time to tell her character's heartbreaking story. Robison darkens the tenor of the play, going deep within her character to captivate the audience with a spellbinding story that jolts the men.
Director Angie Anderson and dialect coach Elizabeth Kavanagh have obviously worked hard to maintain McPherson's terse rhythms of rough, colloquial speech, which sound lyrical expressed in the rolling Irish brogues heard here. The transitions between tales are seamless. With a focus on rich characters, "The Weir" is a welcoming refuge on a crisp fall night.
"The Weir" continues through Nov. 19 at Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Business Park Dr., Herndon. Showtime is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. on Nov. 13 and 8 p.m. on Nov. 17, interest permitting. For tickets and information, call 703-481-5930 or visit www.eldenstreetplayers.org.