Martin McDonagh's Quirky Take on
What is amazing about McDonagh's writing is that none of the contradictions crash into another in his hands. The contradictions are inherent in the composition of the characters and the progression of events. Life can be a roller coaster ride with sudden changes in trajectory, and the lives of many (particularly those in inhospitable outposts) are often bleak. It is easy to lose one's humanity under these circumstances. However, the unflinching, devouring, and cynically bemused delight that McDonagh finds in all of this is bracing and liberating for those who can embrace it.
The year is 1934. Documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty is on the neighboring island of Inishmore filming his dramatized documentary Men of Aran (in actuality, Flaherty filmed on the Islands for two and a half years employing locals hired to portray a fictional family facing extreme danger capturing sharks for lamp oil, a practice which had long ceased to exist).As the play opens, sisters Kate and Eileen Osbourne, proprietresses of the town general store, are anxiously awaiting the return of their late adolescent ward Cripple Billy Claven, who has gone to Dr. McSharry because of a persistent cough. Claven was born with a severely deformed leg and arm. Shortly thereafter, his parents were drowned in their boat under circumstances which are unclear ("Billy's mam and dad went and drowned themselves when they found out Billy was born a cripple-boy," offers one obnoxious Inishmaaner). The sisters took in and raised Billy, assuming the designation of Aunt Kate and Aunt Eileen. They are not the sharpest tacks in the box, and their initial conversation sets the tone for the characterizations and humor of the play:
Johnnypateenmike lives off the money he wheedles from Mammy O'Dougal, his alcoholic mother with whom he lives. He plies her with drink in hope of advancing her demise. The eavesdropping Johnnypat supplements his income by receiving payments for the gossip that he provides, as well as by blackmailing those on whom he has serious dirt. When he spreads the word about Flaherty's documentary, Helen McCormack, a vicious and bullying girl on whom Billy has a crush, and her lard-ass younger brother Bartley, who is constantly bothering Kate and Eileen about carrying more chocolates from America, arrange for the laconic Babbybobby (in exchange for kisses with the scary Helen) to take them over to Inishmore in his curragh (a small rowboat) so that they may be cast in the movie. Billy is convinced that his one chance to escape his derisive companions and empty life is to go to the movie set, and seek to be cast there for a movie to be made in America. Although the well enough meaning Babbybobby is superstitiously afraid of taking a cripple on his curragh, he agrees to do so after Billy shows him the apparently dire diagnosis that he has received from Dr. McSharry. And faith and begorrah, Billy is taken to Hollywood to be cast in the role of a crippled person. Without returning to say good-bye to his "aunts," Billy goes off to America.
The second act will carry Cripple Billy to the depths of despair as well as to true happiness. Which will prevail? It should not be difficult to figure out. McDonagh is true to his vision, and no serious theatre lover would have it any other way.
Tom Morin's exemplary performance fully captures Billy's capacity for hope and joy when facing adversity as well as this capacity's limits. Billy is anomalous on the island of Inishmaan and as much as a beacon for hope as life's vicissitudes allow. Carolyn Popp as Kate embraces the humor in the persona of the dottier of the "aunts" without allowing her performance to slip into overreaching for laughs. Catherine Rust trusts McDonagh's words so fully that she is willing to play Eileen as dry and plain as two-week-old factory white bread. Rust's decision pays off as McDonagh's derision of Eileen as well as the deep well of love that she has for Billy glowingly shine through.
Leah Barker is particularly convincing in the complex role of the frighteningly miserable Helen. Without softening the horror that Helen can be, Barker emits glimmers of the life that is still inside her. She also flashes a feral sexuality which validates the attraction that men have for her. Although his relative inexperience is visible in the awkwardness of his performance in the first scene, thereafter Kyle Parham is unselfconsciously hilarious in capturing the childish stupidity of Helen's brother Bartley.
David Edwards fully captures the reprehensible, petty, and hurtful evil of Johnnypateenmike that we are allowed to see. Mark Byrne plays Babbybobby Bennett, a decent-hearted fellow undermined by the superstition and muddle-headedness of his environment, as straightforwardly as McDonagh has written him.
Dave Scheffler is solidly convincing as the ethical and responsible Dr. McSharry. In view of the fact that the rather saintly Cripple Billy is depicted as having his spirit endangered by a community of ruined souls, it surprises me that McDonagh drew McSharry so affirmatively.
Kathleen Huber portrays Mammy O'Dougal, Johnnypat's 90-year-old mother. Huber is a total delight having a high old time playing a distinctly non-McDonagh Irishwoman. Although Mammy is 95 years and has been inebriated on a daily basis for as long as anyone can remember, she is sharp as a tack, and as delightful as Bushmills Irish whisky. It may be that Mammy's presence here is to bring to the attention of audiences just how far McDonagh has taken us from the days of the cozy Irish playwrights.
Given that his first six plays are Irish ("The Leenane Trilogy" and "The Aran Islands Trilogy"although the third play in the latter trilogy has never been produced or published), it may surprise some to know that McDonagh was born and raised in England to Irish parents. When his parents returned to Ireland, McDonagh and his brother remained behind in London. Still, McDonagh has that buoyant storytelling technique that is so beloved in Irish writers. However, his affection for Ireland appears to be on the low end of the scale. Additionally, McDonagh's storytelling is darkly nihilist and powerfully shocking.
Director Carl Wallnau has effectively emphasized the bleaker, more painful side of The Cripple of Inishmaan. Given the mournful tone of the play, the humor is most effective when it is allowed to rise smoothly from character and situation.
The Cripple of Inishmaan continues performances (Evenings: Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday & Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Wednesday & Sunday 2 pm) through March 10, 2013 at at Centenary Stage Company at the Sitnik Theatre in the Lackland Center on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Avenue, Hackettstown, New Jersey 07840. Box Office: 908-9794297; online: www.centenarystageco.org
The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh; directed by Carl Wallnau