Raise a glass, brave the cold and face your fears for Riverside’s ‘The Weir’

The Weir

Through Oct. 30, Riverside Theater, Iowa City, $15-35

The cast of Riverside Theatre’s ‘The Weir.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

Winding my way through the Ped Mall to Riverside Theatre, for opening night of Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s The Weir, I was glad I chose that day to crack open my big tub of winter sweaters. I was alone because my housemates weren’t free, and I hugged my warm sweater around my ribs against the blowing, and rather startling, misty chill of night.

The fact that I was going without my housemates was noteworthy, because The Weir is a favorite of theirs — they saw it while studying abroad in London in the actual ’90s — when the play was written, and is set. I have been hearing about this play for 23 years, but never felt particularly pulled toward it. This is how it was sold to me: a bunch of guys in a bar telling ghost stories. Things I am not particularly interested in: plays with mostly guys, guys at bars and (don’t hate me) ghost stories. I’m in the unpopular camp of not loving all things spooky and scary and honestly (seriously don’t stop reading just because the reviewer is a monster) think Halloween is overrated and usually try to avoid it. So. I had never read or seen The Weir in the past 23 years. But here I was tromping through the night alone with one goal in mind: spooky Irish dudes in a bar story time.

I am happy to report, this show was not what I expected. As soon as I entered the theater space, I felt warmed and invited, cozy and home. That’s an impressive feat from just the set and opening light cue. (The Guinness in my hand didn’t hurt either — thank you, concessions!) But have I ever been let down by a S. Benjamin Farrar set design? No. No is the answer. His sets are always magical and transporting — and this one does so much work in bringing the audience in from the cold. His creation of depth in the space drew me to feel as if I could almost see the fictional rooms and streets beyond those doorways. Magic.

As the action unfolded, I found that all subsequent lighting shifts, the howling wind cues and every cabled or cardigan ’90s sweater drew me in further to the warmth of the narrative, as did the actors themselves. Though I had a rough time following their Irish lilts at first, I acclimated to the sounds of their words by the time I needed to — specifically, when news of a young lady from Dublin moving up the street breaks open the characters’ more inscrutable expressions, long drawn from harsh winds and lonely country lives, into wide smiles and bright eyes.

Tim Budd (L) and Aaron Stonerook in ‘The Weir.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

The three men huddled around the bar upstage-left quickly disabuse me of my fear that this is a dude-bro bar play. It isn’t. The impish twinkle in Tim Budd’s eye shows a stubbornness against the despair that his character could have easily succumbed to, but hasn’t. Aaron Stonerook’s barkeep carries a steady and comforting presence that usually inhabits older folk, but mixes with a youthfulness that is delightful. He’s the backbone of this play, of this community, but he carries it so lightly. New to the Riverside stage, Bob Mussett blew me away with his full and intricate character of Jim. Jim is the guy you most likely forget was there, you know? He’s quieter, not a storyteller like some of the others, and sticks to the edges of a room. But Mussett brings this character to a sort of dazzling life: we absolutely see him — this guy who is often invisible.

Into the center of the stage comes the life of the party (and source of the men’s gossip). Elliott Bales is perfectly cast as Finbar, a rich landlord who has since moved on up to a bigger town. He enters the cozy, tight space as a giant sparkly bull might burst in — clad in a bright white suit and taller than every other character by at least a head. We might expect Finbar to be a blustering peacock throughout, but Bales easily shows us this man’s soft underbelly too.

And with Finbar is the woman. Noel VanDenBosch, in unflattering ’90s attire, her hair and make-up (if any) plain, glows with a beauty that comes with genuine openness. And that’s how VanDenBosch introduces us to Valerie. In the hands of another actress (and director) Valerie might hold more back, a sense of fleeing from something or hiding her past. But I loved this already open starting point for her, because it gave VanDenBosch’s acting even greater depths to plumb within herself, and required the whole cast to open up the safe place for her to share her deep well of a story.

Each actor used their ghost story to reveal the usually unseen side of their character. And with each character’s story, they become more willing to reveal their fears tenderly with each other. Instead of me being annoyed at a bunch of men holding forth, I felt honored when each man (and woman) blessed us with their story, their gift of a wee window into their heart.

Noel VanDenBosch as Valerie in ‘The Weir.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

Producing artistic director of Riverside Theatre, Adam Knight, knows his way around a stage. I knew we’d be in good hands with him as director of The Weir, but I was more than once in awe of his deft staging. He managed to create circles of characters in a very angular, almost triangular set. The movement of the story arcs toward the warmth of intimacy is beautifully mirrored in Knight’s staging.

I mentioned how our three lonely guys are huddled around the bar in the beginning? That upstage-left bar is where we live for approximately the first third of the play — a public space where conversations usually stick closer to weather and gossip. For the second third of the play, we are squarely in the center of the room, around a round table where Valerie often sits (and the feeling of circular staging swirls). But after our friendly giant Finbar and oft-forgotten Jim take their leave into the cold night, the three who are left move to gather around the fireplace which is downstage-right.

The action of the show has been like an arrow shooting straight toward the hearth. The lighting becomes more intimate; they all start drinking whisky; they sit close — to each other and to us. Tim Budd delivers the culminating and flawlessly pitched “ghost story” of the show here, creating the kind of late night vulnerability that bonds people for good.

It’s a beautiful piece of theater, and a great reason to brave the cold.

The Weir runs at Riverside Theater through Oct. 30. Tickets are $15-35. The Sunday matinee on Oct. 23 will be followed by a performance by Coppers & Brass, and the Saturday, Oct. 29 performance will be followed by a talkback with Iowa City Ghost Hunters.

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