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The Cripple of Inishmaan
By Elyse Sommer
New York audiences were first introduced to Martin McDonagh's marvelous ear for the language of the loutish folk who inhabit his plays through the Atlantic Theater's production The Beauty Queen of Leenane which moved on to Broadway, as did their more recent presentation The Lieutenant of Inishman. While this is The Cripple of Inishmaan' debut at the Atlantic Theater, it had its New York premiere at the Public Theater with an American director and cast. If you saw and enjoyed it then, as I did, you'll find that it's even funnier and more poignant with the Druid Theatre Company's cast intact from its successful U.K. tour and helmed by the company's founder and long-time artistic director, Garry Hynes.
Hynes' has intensified the mix of nastiness and humor as well as the repetitions and silences that give this tragi-comedy its emotional richness. Her actors are extraordinarily potent and finely attuned to the rhythm of their characters' speech patterns. It would take a stone not to be touched by Aaron Monaghan 's Cripple Billy. And speaking of stones, as Billy likes to stare at cows, so his Auntie Kate (Marie Mullen) treats stones as a sort of Ouija Board to talk to whenever she feels nervous.
The play, which is set in 1934 on an island off the west coast of Ireland, abounds with characters whose overlapping streaks of meanness and kindness and behavioral quirks warrant adding an S to the Cripple of the title:
Antie Kate's sister Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy) tends to assuage her nerves by nibbling at the store's candy supply rather than sell it to the sweet-toothed Bartley (Laurence Kinlan).
Bartley's feisty sister Helen (Kerry Condon), with whom Billy is smitten, has a slippery hand with the eggs she's supposed to deliver. In one of the play's most hilarious scenes, she plays England versus Ireland with Bartley, by squashing an egg into his forehead, and quickly following up with two more. Helen also uses the Irish version of the F word more than a character in a David Mamet play.
JohnnyPateenMike (David Pearse), the village's one-man paparazzi who's ever on the alert for good "pieces of news" to trade for treats to go with his tea, encourages his 90-year-old mammy's (Patricia O'Connell— one of the cast's three American actors) taste for " the drink" in hopes that she'll take a deadly fall. An inquiry about his mother, prompts this reply: "Me mammy is fine, so she is, despite me best efforts. . .a fortune in booze that bitch has cost me over the years. She’ll never go."
Babby Bobby (Andrew Connolly, the second American making his Druid debut; the third being John C. Vennema as the local doctor) is kind-hearted but, according to Helen, no more morally pure than the never seen priest. As Billy discovers, neither does BabbyBobby take kindly to being duped by a hard luck story.The play takes its time introducing us to this motley crew of residents of a place where nobody has much education or money and nothing much ever happens. By the time everyone is accounted for it's easy to see why JohnnyPateen's juiciest piece of news —that an American director has come to the neighboring island to make a film about it— is such a bomb shell. The making of such a film is not a figment of the playwright's imagination, but grounds the play in fact: Director Robert Flaherty's first sound film, A Man From Aran, dramatized the struggles of an Irish coast community and was named Best Picture of the Year in 1934.
Naturally, Helen and Bartley and, yes, Billy, see the casting call for local participants in the film as a chance to escape their dreary lives. For Billy it's also a means for being someone other than a poor thing to be forever known as Cripple Billy, even to his affectionate aunties. Desperation inspires Billy to invent a lie that persuades Babby Bobby to row him to the film casting scene despit his superstitious resistance to having a cripple in his rowboat. That lie ultimately and ironically comes true, leading to another invention to demonstrate the blend of humanity and mean-spiritedness at work in these characters.
To the aunties' distress and everyone's amazement, Billy is chosen to be sent to Hollywood for a screen test. His Hollywood adventure and its effect on his aunties and the other Islanders is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. A high point among the play's many high points is the scene when everyone is gathered in a church hall to watch the completed movie. They are not absorbed by what they see, nor do they see themselves in what's happening on screen. Outspoken Helen greets the films ending with " Oh thank Christ the fecker’s over" and declares it to be " a pile of fecking shite."
Unimpressed as the Islanders are with the film itself, however, coupled as it is with Billy's return it does deepen the sense of Irish pride. Johnny Pateen's observation about Ireland not being such a bad place if it attracts the attention of a Hollywood film maker is re-stated several times throughout — lastly by Bartley's "Ireland can’t be such a bad place if cripple fellas turn down Hollywood to come to Ireland."
If I have one complaint about this production it's about the physical staging. Francis O'Connor's blue-green set is atmospherically lit by Davy Cunningham, and its mood enhanced by Colin Towns' original music. However, the play and the actors are strong enough to make the somewhat clunky and prone to technical failures descending and rising set pieces unnecessary— and, in fact, distracting. It's a minor complaint so I'll conclude with my own version of that frequently used observation about Ireland: It's a sure bet that Ireland can't be such a bad place if the clever English son of Irish parents keeps returning for inspiration to his parents' homeland to write sad yet screamingly funny plays like The Cripple of Inishmaan.
LINKS TO OTHER MCDONAGH PLAY REVIEWS
The Lieutenant of Inishmore--London
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
The Lonesome West
The Cripple of Inishmaan (1998)
A Skull in Connemara