By Conor McPherson (Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' Studio Theatre)

Jan 26, 2000 at 4:00 am
For the pint-sippin' boyos in Conor McPherson's The Weir at the Studio Theatre at the Rep, no event is too small or too insignificant to be hashed out repeatedly. Tucked in Brendan's country pub, in a rural part of Ireland, four blokes and a bird spend a blustery evening in this enjoyable but trifling one-act telling ghost stories with only a pot-bellied stove and their own hot air for warmth. It's the old sod, so everyone has firsthand experience with walking spirits and restless souls -- at least till last call.

At the Studio, a few battered tables and chairs decorate the centrally located playing space, with the audience seated on three sides. Against the far wall, there's a small bar, stools and a cash register. Audience members can dimly see the faces of their companions across the playing area, but this cast -- mostly energized and convincing -- compels one's focus. Set designer Michael Philippi has devised a clean, well-lighted place that any self-respecting soak would find cozy (mercifully or miraculously without the logo-kitsch that would embellish a Stateside ginhole). Director Jim O'Connor has his quintet really use the space, though, inevitably, the folks seated closest or farthest from the bar will see the backs of some actors delivering significant speeches. In fact, all that's missing is the hanging blue haze of cigarette smoke.

Jack (Thomas Carson), a well-upholstered and flushed fellow in very late middle age who bears a startling resemblance to Irish bard Seamus Heaney (although without Heaney's lyric vocal tones), is the first visitor. He shucks his coat and pours himself a drink. But the Guinness tap is faulty, and as he settles for the clearly inferior bottle (which all but disappears in his meaty hand), his face would have drawn a chuckle from W.C. Fields. This is the kind of place where the customers can change places with the bartender, and at a certain hour, everyone switches to scotch. He's quickly followed by Brendan (Randall Newsome), a towering fellow with the reassuring, diplomatic manner you want in your bartender. Next comes Jim (John Ahlin), a shy, bearded fellow who lives with his mum. These three natter until the mildly resented Finbar (Jack Wetherall) arrives. He's a local boy who now runs a hotel. Though he's married, he's been squiring Valerie (Gloria Biegler), a young woman who's recently moved in and bought (as it turns out) a haunted house.

These folks telling ghost stories fill out the rest of The Weir (gee, I keep wanting to type "the weird," which is, I'm sure, what youthful playwright McPherson intended, but frankly, laddie, it's not weird enough). Jack's tale concerns a house built on the fairy road; Finbar has a story about a Ouija board (which he mispronounces as "Luigi," prompting much laughter in the pub). Jim's story is better still: He's a gravedigger who gets told where to dig -- by the corpse. Or does he? Though the actors have verve and try to build tension with their delivery, these tales seem like stripped-down Henry James, and the connective tissue isn't quite formed yet. And when Valerie finally does tell her ghost story, which involves a family tragedy and explains and excuses why she's here, there's little suspense.

Happily, the cast of The Weir is strong and believable enough in these underwritten roles (although the accents are less than consistent, and no one says "Doobl'n" for "Dublin"). Newsome's Brendan is mollifying and appealing, as is Ahlin as Jim, the shy and tentative drinker. Wetherall does well with a cartoonish character who gets no opportunity to traffic in emotional subtleties. Biegler's Valerie is a gentle presence, but one wonders: Why have this character be female? Almost nothing is made of gender politics -- nothing dramaturgically substantial, that is. Finally, Carson as Jack gets the meatiest bits. This character stays until closing time and tells his own story, which mainly has to do with foolish youth and lost chances and going to his girlfriend's wedding. There, he has an epiphany at -- surprise -- a bar. "There's not one morning I don't wake up with her name in the room," he says (an echo of the Welles/Mankiewicz script for Citizen Kane and Bernstein's story about the girl in a white dress). No matter, the good-natured St. Louis audience seems willing to cut playwright McPherson all kinds of slack -- much as they do upstairs, where the misogynist presides. The Rep deserves credit for being curious about new Irish playwrights, but the double-feature billing only points out the immaturity of each work.