The world’s as dramatic as ever— if anything, more so these last few weeks— but the theater’s mired, inexplicably, in an age of diminished dramatic expectations. When we don’t get graphic, arbitrary violence— always more effective when kept offstage— we’re stuck with talking heads, the artists in charge barely seeming to notice that humans come with bodies attached. Action, event, relation, connection— the links that make up narrative seem to be vanishing like endangered species, while narrative itself has become a sort of legally protected zoo creature, curling up inside the artificially barren wastelands of talk as if it, too, had diminished expectations of its ability to accomplish anything.
Conor McPherson’s The Weir, which won the Olivier Award for Best Play in London, is a classic piece of diminution. At best, you can say it isn’t factitious— five people stuck in a lonely bar in Sligo on a stormy night might very well say these things— and that Irish talk makes pleasant listening, though maybe not for two hours without intermission. Unlike the lucky souls onstage, the paying customers don’t get a john break. Ian Rickson’s staging is altogether too shapeless and laconic, but the actors are all good, animating the types who’ve loitered in onstage Irish bars since Garrick first played Dublin: one red-faced and tetchy, one self-aggrandizing, one shyly stammering, one a stout fella in both senses, and the last— Michelle Fairley’s acting is also the best of the lot— a vulnerable young woman.
The talk, in this bar by a weir, with the wind howling on cue in the chimney of the peat-burning fireplace, is of the supernatural storytelling variety, with the usual interludes of small-town recrimination between the rich man, who’s dropped in to show off the quaint place to his new tenant, and the two local odd-job workers who keep the bar stools warm after tourist season. It seems (story 1) that the creaking cottage the young woman from Dublin has just rented is beleaguered by “fairies” (it blocks their path to the river). Finbar, the rich man, counters this attempt to devalue his property by telling (story 2) of a teenage girl neighbor who saw an old woman glaring at her from the stairs, just as her childhood baby-sitter was dying in a distant town. The more introverted of the two laborers offers story 3, about his encounter while grave digging with the ghost of a “pervert” who asked to be buried in the same grave as a little girl. This summons up the young woman’s account (story 4) of receiving a phone call from her own dead child, who in life was haunted by inexplicable dream images that seem to come from stories 1 and 3. That trumps the game; the four men now view the young city woman with renewed respect, and the evening fades away after story 5, told by the tetchy type who began the sequence— a ghostless description of how he failed to marry the girl he loved. The reticent bartender gets no story.
The puzzle is how anyone could find a rich dramatic experience in this clutch of half-gestures and familiar frissons; few taverns in stage history have gotten rave reviews for drawing a pint so watery. Apart from story 3, which augments the form’s usual list of topics, nothing in these anecdotes would have startled the Edwardian era’s great writers of ghost stories, like Edith Wharton or Mary Wilkins Freeman, whose tales make McPherson’s look like recycled shelf liner. Nor does he offer, as they do, any hint of a more complex relation with the unseen world; the only responses The Weir offers are dumb terror and an equally dumb flat-out skepticism.
McPherson may, of course, mean to convey some buried connection between the stories and their listeners: The teenage girl in story 2 and the dead child in story 4 both bear the uncommon name of Niamh; if the girl in story 3 is the heroine of story 5, maybe she’s also the mother of the young woman who tells story 4, which means story 5’s cranky teller is, unknowingly, her father. But even if these little scenarios are true, they’re never acknowledged, and so leave no mark on what we see. The Weir‘s only drama is its absence of drama, and nobody ever went to the theater to be lulled by two hours of non-event, with a Twilight Zone episode for a topper.
Tongue Of A Bird has its super-natural streak, too, but it flies higher than The Weir in several senses. Flying’s its literal subject: The heroine, Maxine (Cherry Jones), is a search-and-rescue pilot working the Adirondacks. Hunting for a kidnapped 12-year-old girl, and staying for the interim at the home of the Polish grandmother (Elizabeth Wilson) who raised her, Maxine’s impelled to retrace the childhood emotions that keep her above the world, looking down in search of lost things. Prodding her on, in addition to the missing girl’s insistent mother (Melissa Leo), are an airborne ghost of her own suicidal mother (Sharon Lawrence) and the object of her search (Julia McIlvaine), who fastidiously points out that she’s only Maxine’s vision and has nothing to do with the real girl, “poor thing.” A key image supplied by the opening speech— Maxine’s recurrent dream of looking down from an upstairs window— turns out at the end to have deep, unexpected ramifications for her and her search.
Not always for the rest of us, though. The two murky stories that Maxine’s striving to clear up— the mystery of her mother’s death and the fate of the missing girl— have no meaningful connection. That Maxine links them is as arbitrary as the fate that brought the girl and her mother to the region: Wanting to break with her past life, the mother closed her eyes and put her finger on the map. Defogging both mysteries reveals nothing of their deeper causes; the epiphany of her present discovery lets Maxine recover her missing memory of the past, but this isn’t narrative development, only the unblocking of a road along which narrative might move. “You’re stuck,” the missing girl tells Maxine, comparing her to a frightened tightrope walker. “No going forward, no going back.”
Maxine gets unstuck, but dramatically that’s the whole event; the rest is speech-making. McLaughlin, fortunately, can write a beaut of a speech, heightening the language and twisting it into wonderful free-flowing skeins of imagery. When an actress with the emotional presence of Jones or Wilson sails along them, the resulting power is strong enough to keep you, at least temporarily, from noticing the stasis into which this high-flying play has steered itself while watching the pretty cloud formations instead of the controls. Because Lisa Peterson’s unsteady directorial approach tends to play up the language of a scene rather than its action, performers who lack Jones’s well of seemingly infinite emotional resource appear to be orating in a void.
In some respects, a void is what the play itself seems locked in. Though the maternal heritage, and the reciprocal bond of mother and daughter, are its themes, there’s no dynamic within the relations, with one plot strand lacking a mother and the other a daughter. Unless McLaughlin’s point is that the heritage itself, the whole idea of love between mother and daughter, is imaginary, a herstory each woman must invent alone— which seems improbably bleak for a work that at least tries to build to an epiphany. One difficulty is that McLaughlin’s limited her own opportunities for contrast by eliminating from her dramatic world not only any male characters, but virtually any hint of male consciousness. Maxine has neither father nor grandfather to refer to; any possible motive for the kidnapper other than abstract horror-movie menace is carefully excluded. Instead of making Tongue of a Bird more woman-centered this only makes the female characters seem more isolated from the world at large, men and women alike, without supplying any motive for their separateness. While The Weir‘s characters, though never deeply engaged, at least talk to each other, and by extension to us, all the verbal flamboyance and yearning intensity in Tongue of a Bird never quite brush away a disquieting sense that the person with whom the author most wants to communicate is herself.