05/24/2013 10:26 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2013

'The Weir': Conor McPherson's Ghosts Are Back at Irish Repertory

The Irish Repertory Theatre Facebook

Ghosts, both alive and dead, haunt the rural Irish pub that is the setting for Conor McPherson's captivating and lyrical play The Weir, now in a first-rate revival at the Irish Repertory Theatre as part of its 25th anniversary season.

It is a dark and stormy night as the regulars begin to assemble at Brenden's pub in an unspecified village in the Irish countryside. It is Jack who arrives first, even before Brenden has descended from his bachelor quarters upstairs, and finds the Guinness draft out of order. There is a sense that quite a bit may not be functioning that well in Brenden's bar, including, as we later learn, the ladies' loo.

Jack is soon followed by Jim, an odd-jobs man about the village who still lives with his mammy, who has been deathly ill for many years now. As they warm themselves on this blustery night by the stove in the corner and a succession of "small ones" from the whisky bottle behind the bar, the conversation is the usual barroom banter, ranging from the weather to horse racing to women and the lack thereof in the lives of the three men.

But as only a master storyteller like McPherson can pull off, there is an undercurrent of tension even in the smallest of this talk. When the name Finbar crops up, a palpable edge creeps into their tone. Finbar used to be a regular at Brenden's, but he has since moved up in the world and doesn't often come around to see his old mates. The news is that Finbar plans to drop by that evening with a young woman from Dublin who is renting one of his houses.

The arrival of the young woman, Valerie, into this male preserve is a trial for the regulars, especially when she orders a white wine, but they all strive to be on their best behavior. After some polite chit-chat and a study of the photos on the wall, the regulars decide to entertain her with some tall tales. It's what foreigners seem to enjoy, especially the "Germans" who vacation in the area every year in their campers, and for the denizens of Brenden's pub, Dubliners count as foreigners.

Jack starts off with a yarn about some Irish fairies, but each successive yarn grows increasingly dark, and one involves some ghostly knocking at the doors and windows of the very house Valerie is renting.

Stories beget stories, and it is Valerie herself who has the most gripping to tell, a heart-wrenching account of sadness and mystery that explains her presence in this lonely part of Ireland. The ghost that hounds Valerie prompts Jack, in turn, to confess his own tale of anguish. These are about the ghosts we will all one day become and the ghosts we learn to live with daily.

The director Ciaran O'Reilly has assembled a fine cast that manages to turn an evening at the pub into a harrowing night of self-revelation and discovery. Each of the actors is a natural story-teller, and each contributes in small ways to the overall success of the Irish Repertory staging.

One of the first lessons in Acting 101 is for actors to listen to one another onstage, a rule often more honored in the breach than the observance. But when Tessa Klein, in an excellent performance as Valerie, begins her moving and mesmerizing soliloquy, the rest of the cast give her their rapt attention. And the same is true for each of the others as story follows story, giving an immediacy to the play that otherwise might be lost.

As Brenden, the only one without a story to tell, Billy Carter creates an indelible character just by listening and "debating with himself" whether to join the others in a "small one." Dan Butler is a cocky blowhard as Jack until he is forced to confront the loss in his life. Sean Gormley is a convincing swell, trying to be a big shot with his roll of 20-pound notes, and John Keating delivers a fine turn as Jim, the village handyman.

Charlie Corcoran's detailed set is as cozy as any country pub and Drew Levy's sound design, especially the wind whistling outside, is enough to send a chill up anyone's spine.