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Review: The Weir

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Fine ensemble work, sensitive direction, and evocative design make The Weir one of the superior productions to come from the Contemporary American Theatre Company (CATCO). Conor McPherson's spooky Irish play is an excellent choice for the group, which has built a reputation for well-matched ensemble productions and an ability to find the humor in drama.

McPherson is a favorite of CATCO's artistic director, Geoffrey Nelson, who plays the pivotal role of Jack and who previously starred in the company's production of McPherson's St. Nicholas, a solo play about a man haunted by vampires. Director Jon Farris, a Denison University theatre professor who retired to focus on a professional acting and directing career, elicits nuanced performances from his five-member cast. Under his guidance, the actors bring out the musicality and poetry in McPherson's unmistakably Irish-flavored language. With the help of dialect coach Laura Parrotti, the accents are strong and thick enough for Farris to slow the pace to ensure clarity.

Nelson shows revealing flashes of the haunted, wounded heart underneath the cynicism of Jack, who joins three other men -- plus a female newcomer -- in a rural Irish bar for an evening of drinking and storytelling. Nelson revels in his curmudgeonly role, a satisfying variation on the title role he played in CATCO's Uncle Vanya.

As Valerie, the hesitant newcomer from Dublin, Christina Ritter offers an endearing blend of shyness and half-hidden wounds. Valerie's tale of a spirit who seemingly reaches out from the afterlife is the show's dramatic centerpiece, and Ritter gives it emotional depth and poignancy. Dudley Swetland, a veteran Cleveland actor who often appears in CATCO productions, plays the older Finbar with avuncular charm. Ken Erney nicely underplays his role, a quiet rural west-coast Irishman who has faith in the supernatural -- and his accent is spot-on. Malcolm Callan rounds out the top-notch cast as the kind bartender whose hospitality towards Valerie hints at a romantic subtext.

Despite the play's supernatural portents and its exploration of the idea of faith versus doubt, McPherson's primary revelations are about character, especially what has made Jack so cynical and Valerie so haunted.

Scenic designer Carla Risch Chaffin helps bring the play's strong sense of place to life with an old-fashioned rustic bar. Its cozy warmth is all the more inviting -- theatregoers might yearn for a beer from the tap -- in contrast to the chilly night outside, indicated by lighting designer Mary Tarantino's deepening twilight and David Atkinson's wind-whistling sound.

With CATCO's performers making their stories fully convincing revelations of character, The Weir fulfills its potential as much more than an evening of ghost stories on a dark, brisk night.

The Weir runs Feb. 3-26 at the Contemporary American Theatre Company in the Riffe Center's Studio One, 77 South High St., 2nd floor, Columbus, Ohio. Tickets: (614) 469-0939. Website: www.catco.org.

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