Once again, actor Brad Armacost finds himself at the holiday season confronting theatrical ghosts and the very real demon known as Chicago traffic.
For Armacost is back at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace starring as Ebenezer Scrooge in the chestnut that is “A Christmas Carol.” From that gig, he’s been heading back into the big city to rehearse the Irish Theatre of Chicago’s production of Conor McPherson’s “The Weir,” which recently opened.
If that weren’t enough supernatural in a thespian’s day, until recently Armacost was playing Bishop Egan in Fox TV’s serial version of “The Exorcist,” which looks like it’s met an untimely death after one season of being made in Chicago.
But what’s Christmas time if not a season filled with spirits – either in a glass or on a screen, page or a stage? And, as Armacost noted, ghost stories are part of a holiday tradition, be it Victorian England or James Joyce’s Ireland.
“The Weir,” set in a rural Irish pub on a very windy night, has been haunting theatergoers since it debuted in 1997. This was the first staged work from McPherson. It met with critical acclaim and launched the career of the man many think has become Ireland’s preeminent playwright.
This is the second time ITC – which used to be called Seanachai – has staged “The Weir.” Armacost and most of the rest of that cast from five years ago are back for the craic, which the company put on last time at the Irish American Heritage Center.
“We had a marvelous run, and extended it twice,” Armacost said.
Armacost again plays Jack Mullen, a role which had garnered him a Joseph Jefferson Award nomination.
“I love this character. He’s an old Irish bachelor who has lost at love in part because of some bad decisions he’s made,” Armacost said. “He takes the pub’s owner under his wing.”
On this particular night, only four men are in the place, telling tales they may or may not have heard before, until a mysterious woman from Dublin drops in for a pint and shares a story of her own.
The play is quite funny in that Irish way, Armacost said, where you find yourself laughing, then realize there’s also something sad about what’s being said.
Armacost is quite familiar with McPherson’s take on such matters, having also been in the ITC/Seanachai productions of McPherson’s “Shining City” and “The Seafarer,” which he also performed in with John Mahoney at Steppenwolf.
“The Seafarer” actually is set on Christmas Eve and involves the Devil himself showing up to collect a debt at a card game in a grubby part of Dublin.
While not set during the Christmas season, Armacost said “The Weir,” too, is a fitting play for this time of year.
“There’s a simplicity to its structure that makes it a universal story,” Armacost said. “‘The Weir’ has a rhythm about it. And it touches on the themes of making a community, telling stories, and finding comfort with other people.”
Directing The Weir 2.0
Directing this time – in what the cast is calling Weir 2.0 – is Siiri Scott who directed ITC’s production of the one-woman show “My Brilliant Divorce” last season, which garnered a Jeff Nomination for Best Solo Performance for the star of the show, ensemble member Barbara Figgins.
Scott heads the acting and directing program at the University of Notre Dame in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre, where she has been working for 18 years. Like Armacost, Scott does a lot of driving for her dramatic duties, as she recently moved back to the Chicago area while still teaching in South Bend.
Scott said directing “The Weir” with a company that already has staged the work on a prior occasion is a first-of-its-kind assignment for her and relatively rare in the world of theater.
Working with a cast that is so familiar with the play and that knows the characters so well has allowed her to concentrate on “directing inside,” meaning she can focus on technical aspects of the production that support telling the story.
Of “The Weir,” Scott said, “It’s really an amazing piece. It’s about people trying to forge connections in their lives. The pub and storytelling have always gone together. People go to places to be around other people, to share experiences. Here, the pub is live a living room for the characters, who are seeking comfort.”
While it’s set in the present – or relatively close to it – one thing isn’t present in the pub, Scott said. No character has a smartphone on and Facebook to keep them company.
“The Weir” runs through Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017 at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Curtain Times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.. There will be added performances on Monday, Dec. 26 at 7:30 p.m. (industry night) and Wednesday, Dec. 28 at 7:30 pm; there will not be performances on Saturday, Dec. 24 (Christmas Eve), Sunday, Dec. 25 (Christmas Day), Saturday, Dec. 31 (New Year’s Eve) or Sunday, Jan. 1 (New Year’s Day).
Tickets during the regular run are $26 Thursdays/Fridays; $30 Saturday/Sundays. Seniors/students $5 off. Tickets are available at www.irishtheatreofchicago.org.