By Bill Hirschman
No one writes “hard” like Martin McDonagh.
While his plays and films brim with outrageous humor rooted in the darker facets of rural Ireland, his worlds are stony, abusive, unyielding environments both of the soil and the heart. His denizens give no quarter and expect none. Nature and fate do not, so why should they?
It’s a claustrophobic insular world so dominated by cruel taunting and keyhole-listening gossip that Billy Claven wants to escape as the title character in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ solid production of The Cripple of Inishmaan.
In McDonagh’s hands, it’s also a partly affectionate, partly clear-eyed anthropological field trip to an isolated realm populated by whimsically rib-tickling eccentrics, from the woman who talks to stones to the man openly trying in vain to hasten his 90-year-old mother’s death by providing her an endless supply of liquor.
And buried deep in this community, which has no other option than to be tight-knit, is a unstated commitment to taking care of each other, to live out an unexpressed bond, if not affection, that barely allows a glimmer of hope and humanity to glint through a crack in the rocky shell.
Director J. Barry Lewis and a village of familiar actors from previous Dramaworks productions inhabit that vibe that echoes 20th Century Irish literature from Joyce to O’Casey to especially Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.
The play is set in 1934 on the tiny island of Inishmaan on the western coast near the town of Inishmore where McDonagh has set other plays. Riffing on a real event, the community’s only real news other than disappearing livestock is that Hollywood filmmaker Robert Flaherty has come to film his documentary Man of Aran on the mainland.
No one is more stimulated than Billy (Adam Petherbridge), a young man crippled at birth and orphaned when his parents drowned. He’s perceived as an odd duck for his obsession of staring endlessly at cows and his bent for reading books. He has been and continues to be cruelly taunted by almost everyone, including being uniformly dubbed Cripple Billy, even the two women who have raised him (Laura Turnbull and Elizabeth Dimon). Even one of them observes with only a shade of sympathy, “Poor Billy isn’t going to be kissed — unless it’s by a blind girl.”
The prospect of getting to the mainland, joining the movie company, then escaping to America idea is simply ridiculous, but it is the life preserver Billy has sought his entire life – and it is that pursuit and its aftermath that forms the journey of the play.
Surrounding him are a unique collection of creatures: Helen (Adelind Horan), an attractive-by-island-standards young woman with a quick, raunchy and cutting tongue, especially when Billy is her target; her candy-addicted village idiot brother Bartley (Wesley Slade); the seemingly decent boatman Babbybobby Bennett (Jim Ballard) whose name said aloud is funny in itself; the crusty town doctor (Dennis Creaghan), and the 90-year-old alcoholic Mammy O’Dougal who slugs down an bottle of booze (Harriet Oser).
Most memorable is the grizzled retrobate Johnnypateenmike (that’s his first name) played with mouth-watering scenery-chewing gusto by Colin McPhillamy. He’s the self-appointed, self-important town crier of sorts trading pronouncements of the latest news in exchange for food. What he really is the King of Gossip in a town populated with them. He is forever listening in on snatches of others’ conversations and reporting his unreliable fourth-hand perceptions and suppositions as if they were gospel.
In other words, everyone is a bit daft and everyone has flaws, even our hero.
The entire cast under Lewis’ leadership does fine work. Petherbridge, an out-of-towner along with Horan, creates an appealing but emotionally wounded lad with pain-filled eyes who is clearly smarter than those around him and who makes Billy’s yearning palpable. He even makes credible his exposure later as a true man of Inishmaan willing to resort to a little heartless expediency.
Horan also is a delight as the uncensored uninhibited fierce Helen who enjoys tossing eggs at people with little provocation and who enjoys using her attractiveness to get what she wants from men. In a major coup, she subtly hints at a jealously guarded interior marked by a loneliness that she might not acknowledge to herself let alone anyone else.
Besides McPhillamy’s outstanding turn, Oser is a hoot as the bedridden senior who assures her doctor slyly, “I only drink on special occasions — and Fridays Saturdays and Sundays.”
The cast was well-coached by Ben Furey in accents for dialogue replete with expressions such as “fecking eejit,” but they are not so naturalistically thick to be indecipherable — most of the time. Furthermore, all the actors have the same accent so they sound as if they come from the same village.
But as good as these actors are – and they are among the best in the region – it’s hard to forget that you’re watching actors at work. Every one of these performers is usually superb at disappearing in their characters, but here you don’t buy that you’re eavesdropping on a group of Irish peasants.
As always, Dramaworks has enlisted a first-rate design team from Steve Shapiro’s sounds of the sea and interstitial Irish melodies to Paul Black’s evocative lighting (a bit bright for the mood perhaps) to Victor Becker’s evolving collection of rough wooden structures.
But a special nod is due the earth-tone costumes by Franne Lee: modest threadbare garb that have likely been worn by these characters for decades and likely inherited. Her imaginative outfit for Johnnypateenmike is comic in itself from the rust-colored greatcoat to the out-of-shape fedora to the belt so much larger than necessary that the end hangs down a foot from the belt loops. It’s a coup to have her work locally since she is a Broadway legend with Tony Awards for Harold Prince’s Candide and Sweeney Todd plus work on Saturday Night Live’s early years including creating the look of the Coneheads, the Bees and the Blues Brothers.
McDonagh, Lewis and company take the audience to visit a community of creatures who on one hand seem like visitors from another planet, and yet who seem all too familiar.
The Cripple of Inishmaan plays through June 4 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Performances run 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, 7 p.m. some Sundays. Running time 2 ½ hours with one intermission. Tickets cost $66, students $10 subject to availability. Call 561-514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.
To read a feature about the production, click here.