About 50 years ago, a journalist asked an old woman in the west of Ireland if she believed in fairies. "I do not, sir," she replied, "but they're there."
Conor McPherson's "The Weir," which opened last night after arriving from London's West End loaded with awards, is about that kind of uncertainty.
The characters don't really believe in fairies or ghosts or the afterlife. But they can't shake off the feeling that there's something there.
Critics like to use the word "haunting" to describe plays whose images linger in the mind long after the stage lights go out. "The Weir" certainly deserves that description.
But it is haunting in a more literal sense. The play is a series of ghost stories that shade gradually from mere spookiness to awful, heart-rending grief.
"The Weir" is set in a small bar in a lonely corner of Ireland. Soon, in summer, the place will be jammed with tourists. But for now, it is still in hibernation, and the quiet, melancholy owner, played by Brendan Coyle, depends on a few local bachelors for customers.
There's Jack, a pompous scarecrow in his fifties who lives with memories of what might have been. And there's the almost silent Jim, still, in his forties, living with his ancient mother.
Into this weary world, the flashy businessman Finbar brings Valerie, an attractive city woman who has come to live in this dull backwater. To impress her, the men tell scary stories of fairies and Ouija boards. She seems unusually alert to these tales of the supernatural.
Then she tells a story of her own, an ordinary, terrible account of the death of her little daughter. Somehow, their lurid yarns have given her the confidence to speak. Somehow, too, these awkward men find the dignity to listen and respond.
On one level, all of this is utterly simple. There is no high drama, no complex plot. They meet, they talk, they leave. But this careful understatement allows a larger subject to emerge. For "The Weir" is really a play about death, and the need for a language in which to speak about it.
The ghost stories, McPherson implies, are the way people used to explain the feeling that a departed loved one is somehow still present. If this larger subject is to come through, it has to emerge from the calm unfolding of a mundane evening.
Director Ian Rickson and his fine cast hold their nerve through the long moments when nothing seems to be happening. The pay-off is a profound sense of dignity. Passive to passionate
The hardest role is that of Valerie, who has to move quite suddenly from passive observer to passionate participant. Michelle Fairley handles it with emotional grace.
But the most extraordinary performance is that of Jim Norton as Jack. A ridiculously talkative figure at the start, he gradually acquires an ability to listen, first to Valerie and then to himself. Norton plots this inner journey with an uncanny sense of direction.
Together, these actors tell McPherson's strangely uplifting tale. They tell us that, even though the ghosts may be gone, the "something" that remains is the haunting memory of those we have lost.
Ah, the sense of community, comfort and home that a bar can offer to the lonely, wounded and lost.
Eugene O'Neill's ''The Iceman Cometh,'' opening on Broadway next week, is a massive illustration of this truth, as is, on a smaller scale, Irish playwright Conor McPherson's 1997 drama ''The Weir,'' which is now at the Walter Kerr in its Royal Court production from London.
This is McPherson's first play with dialogue; he's written two monologue plays, one of which, ''St. Nicholas,'' about a drama critic smitten by an actress and falling into the company of vampires, was done off-Broadway in 1997 with Brian Cox.
McPherson has an oblique, shy, reluctant approach to dramatic action. He likes to weave a mood and spin an atmosphere by means of long stories told by characters. ''The Weir,'' while cunningly arranged, is finally mediocre and sentimental in the quality of its tales.
Five Irish people gather in a bleak, skimpily furnished bar in a country town.
The presiding bartender, Brendan, a handsome guy, laconic and pleasant, is perfectly played by Brendan Coyle.
His most colorful and amusing customer is Jack, a garage owner in his 50s and a master of that peculiar, poetic Irish putdown that's both sarcastic and affectionate.
Jim Norton gets Jack's astringent whimsy just right. His assistant Jim (a fine Kieran Ahern) is a somewhat simple man tied to an aging mother.
Arriving to enliven this trio is local hotshot and real-estate mogul Finbar (Dermot Crowley) in the company of his new tenant Valerie, a woman recently arrived from Dublin (well played by Michelle Fairley).
The presence of Valerie, quiet and gentle, subtly changes the mood of the place. On one level, her request for a white wine discombobulates whiskey-serving Brendan, and her need for a ladies' room gets the explanation that's it's being fixed up for ''the Germans.''
These generic ''Germans'' - the seasonal invasion of rich Europeans using Ireland as a theme park - are a running bitter joke in the play.
On a deeper level, when Valerie notices a photograph of a local weir or dam, she unlocks and undams a narrative instinct in her companions.
Jack and Finbar and Jim proceed to recount personal brushes with the supernatural - more or less traditionally shivery ghost tales. As these stories are told to and for Valerie, we hear the wind whistle and the beams creak.
Jack's encounter merely involved a strange nocturnal knocking; Finbar's actually had an effect on his life, making him move away from his home to town; Jim's was a real experience of eerie evil.
Ian Rickson directs ''The Weir'' with a lovely feel for pace, now slowing things down, now speeding them up with a laugh, now hushing all to a whisper.
The three occult storytellers open up something in Valerie, and she recounts, in dead, spotlit stillness, the family tragedy (with a supernatural angle) that has driven her from Dublin.
So, finally, the sharing of stories amid ''the company and the bright lights'' has brought possibilities of healing and new life in this play that possesses, for all its dramatic insufficiencies, a Chekhovian warmth of spirit.
Theater has deep roots in storytelling, so it's inspiring to find that the simple magic of spinning tales is alive and thriving in the work of the talented young Irish writer Conor McPherson. But it doesn't necessarily follow that his Olivier award-winning London hit "The Weir" will thrive on Broadway. There was some mystified grumbling among exiting patrons following a preview of McPherson's haunting, insinuatingly spellbinding play, indicating that this exquisite production from the Royal Court Theater may have an uphill battle before it in trying to woo 950 patrons a night with its quiet graces. It may prove hard to keep today's sensation-fed audiences attuned to the subtle pleasures of "The Weir."
The play's setting is a dingy local pub in an Irish backwater town, a room realized with sad and comic verisimilitude by designer Rae Smith. An underused dart board can be glimpsed in a gloomy corner; dusty old photos of local historical interest hang limply on the walls. The only objects that glint with life are the taps dispensing the local waters: Harp and Guinness.
Well, Harp anyway. As the play opens, constant patron Jack (Jim Norton) is disgusted to learn that the Guinness tap is out of order --- a bottle will have to do, or rather several bottles. Also inspiring Jack's eloquent Irish scorn is the imminent arrival of a less frequent customer of the bar, Finbar (Dermot Crowley), a local man who abandoned the sleepy rural environs to make his fortune in the nearest town. A sometime real estate broker, he's squiring around a young woman who's purchased a house in the neighborhood, and is expected to drop in for a wee drink to show her off.
Just as curious about this rare female creature are Jim (Kieran Ahern), the bar's only other regular, and Brendan (Brendan Coyle), its proprietor. Everything in this trio's casual banter about the mildly despised Finbar bespeaks lonely lives limited by circumstance (Jim's ailing mother, Brendan's attachment to his family land), hopes and ambitions dulled by the solace of drink and the familiar pleasures of each other's company. They resent Finbar for his (minor) success in town as much as for his having found himself a wife, although they wouldn't care to admit it.
McPherson has a flawless ear for naturally poetic language that brings out the quiet truth of characters without recourse to revelatory speechifying. Indeed the silences in "The Weir" are as telling as the dialogue. Under Ian Rickson's impeccable direction, marked by a rare humility and grace, the marvelous cast gives a master class in the art of the pensive stare and the bemused silence, although they're just as adept (the spry Norton in particular) at rolling out McPherson's nuggets of sly Irish wit. This is unadorned, naturalistic acting of the highest order.
The centerpiece of the play is a series of monologues in which the men recount tales of supernatural experience that are juicy reminders of the enduring pleasures of the grand old ghost story. Jack tells of the fairies that once haunted the house that Finbar's client Valerie (Michelle Fairley) has bought; Finbar recalls a family who moved away after a strange incident in which the spirit of a newly dead woman appeared before a young girl; Jim remembers a still more disturbing encounter with what may have been the ghost of a child molester.
Although one could perhaps do without the spooky whistling wind that rises as Jack begins the first story, Paule Constable's gently shifting, crepuscular lighting adds a shiver of atmosphere to the stories, and the actors, by their very naturalness, bring an unsettling truth to them. More haunting than the tales themselves is an unspoken irony: the contrast between the ghosts, who ceaselessly cleave to life, and the denizens of the bar, who have not found the courage --- or simply the occasion --- to fully embrace it.
But they get a chance when Finbar's guest shares her story --- an account of her own, devastatingly sad experience of a communication from beyond the grave. The tale awakens in the men a dormant empathy that brings from each a hesitantly expressed desire to comfort a woman whose tragedy dwarfs their own muted unhappinesses. It also brings out the best in this astonishing group of actors, who turn the play's emotional climax into a tremendously moving picture of the intimacy that shared grief can bring about.
Indeed "The Weir's" subject is intimacy, the unspoken, sacred feeling that binds old friends and can flow suddenly between new ones. Despite the immeasurable talents of the fine actors onstage, that intimacy is hard to put across in a Broadway house, even a relatively small one like the Walter Kerr. And if the audience doesn't feel connected to these characters, the gentle ebb and flow of "The Weir," which unfolds in one two-hour act in real time, may well come across as static and untheatrical (and attenuated).
The characters onstage listen to each other with acute attention that is beautifully rewarded when their tamped-down, unprepossessing hearts find release and succor in a moment of deep sympathy with a stranger. The question is, will Broadway theatergoers have the heart to do the same?