By John Angell Grant
Special to the Daily Planet
At age 27, Irish playwright Conor McPherson burst into the limelight in 1997 with his play “The Weir” that brought raves from critics and ran for two years in London’s West End theater district, winning the prestigious Olivier Award. A Broadway production followed in 1999.
In something of a local theatrical coup, Berkeley’s skillful Aurora Theater Company has landed the rights to the Bay Area premiere of this play, opening a strong local production last week in the company’s intimate performing space in the Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club.
“The Weir” is a bar play in which a handful of characters sit around a small rural pub gabbing and gossiping, until the topic turns to ghost stories.
Then four of the five tell stories of personal encounters with the frightening supernatural.
Hanging out after work in scenic designer Chad William Owens’ warm, wonderful, cheery small-town rural bar set, initially the male barflies buy rounds and trade blarney about horse racing, money, liquor, women, small town gossip and backbiting, and local history.
There is portly gabby Jack (W. Francis Walters) who owns the local auto repair shop, simple Jim (Charles Shaw Robinson) who does handyman work around town, and wary young barkeep Brendan (Allen McKelvey).
These men are bachelors who socialize mostly with men.
They are concerned with prices that local real estate is fetching as the town threatens to gentrify, and with outside money that will be coming in from visiting Germans during a tourist season that starts in a couple of weeks.
The three are especially interested in a young woman (Emily Ackerman) from the city who has acquired a house in the village, and the sleazy local realtor/hotelier (Julian Lopez-Morillas) who arranged the deal.
When the two arrive at the pub, the conversation shifts almost magically into a telling of local fairy tales and ghost stories.
The tone of the play changes as characters in turn share personal accounts of supernatural phenomena.
These personal accounts are in the vein of “something on the stairs” in a quiet isolated house on a dark, cold night.
The stories include unexplained knockings on the walls, mysterious deaths, grave digging and conversations with the dead.
With the telling of these supernatural experiences, each person seems to be suddenly communicating a fear or need in their lives, from a time when something indefinable happened. Their abilities to understand these experiences are just out of reach. It makes for a magical story.
In this world of Irish bachelors chatting with a young woman, the supernatural stories also may be a compensation for the unbalanced and incomplete connections between women and men.
The weir, referred to briefly in one of the fairy stories, is a dam that was built in recent memory to create and regulate the town’s water power.
Director Tom Ross’ wonderful production has many nice touches.
Occasionally the play’s characters get excited, for example, and all talk at once – just like a real bar full of enthusiastic drinkers.
The cast is excellent. Aurora, is a little theater gem sitting right in the middle of Berkeley.
McPherson graduated from University College, Dublin, in 1991 with a degree in philosophy. For two years he taught ethics and moral philosophy, while writing plays in his spare time. He is currently writing a film for Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks, tentatively titled “The Actors.”
“The Weir” is a lovely and mysterious play about lost and found dreams.
It reaches out to try and grasp the spiritual and mystical needs of human beings that extend beyond the concrete moments of their everyday social interactions.
Muses barfly Jack, thoughtfully, near the end of the play as they close up the pub, “We’ll all be ghosts soon enough.”
“The Weir,” presented by Aurora Theater Company at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Wednesday through Sunday, through Dec. 17. Call (510) 843-4822, or visit www.auroratheatre.org.