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Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Regional Reviews

The Cripple of Inishmaan
The Vortex Theatre

Also see Sarah's review of The Drowsy Chaperone

Micah McCoy and Abygail Merlino
Life can be tough when you're an orphan, a cripple, and you live on one of Ireland's impoverished Aran Islands during the worldwide depression in 1934—and everyone calls you Cripple Billy (Micah McCoy). Billy has been raised by Kate (Ninette S. Mordaunt) and Eileen (Augusta Allen-Jones), two sisters who run a country store that stocks very few items. Stories vary on how Billy came to be crippled and how his parents died.

Life is limited on the island, so residents are willing to trade goods for the gossipy news items delivered by Johnnypateenmike (Ray Orley). Johnny is a ne'er-do-well who lives with his ancient alcoholic mother Mammy (Jean Effron). He keeps feeding Mammy more and more of the island's homemade liquor, poteen, hoping she'll finally die and he can get his hands on her money—but no such luck.

The play kicks off with Johnny's latest bit of news—an American film crew has arrived on the nearby main island of Inishmore. This filming is based on the actual documentary filmed by Hollywood director Robert Flaherty in the mid 1930s. As with the documentary, Flaherty is seeking local residents to act in some of the dramatized portions of the film.

Two teenagers, Helen (Abygail Merlino) and her brother Bartley (Nathan Clifford), hitch a ride on a boat owned by the surly fisherman Babbybobby (Aaron Worley). Billy—who is going half out of his mind with boredom and taunts from his edgy neighbors—decides to give it a shot as well. Surprisingly, Billy gets a role on the film and he is taken back to America for the dramatic filming.

Meanwhile, back in Inishmaan, we get to see just how dysfunctional a small village can be. Distraught over Billy's absence, Kate begins talking to a pet stone, while Eileen eats the store's supplies of American candy to calm herself. The young Helen is a force of nature. Her language is salty and she spews aggression at everyone, particularly brother Bartley who passively accepts her smacks across the head.

Helen has a job selling her neighbor's eggs, but she cracks most of them on Bartley's head. She reveals that she took up her wild aggression in response to childhood molestation. She lashes out so no one can get near. But that doesn't stop her from kissing the boys on the film crew. Meanwhile, Bartley dreams of owning a telescope.

After a few weeks, Billy returns to Inishmaan. Turns out he couldn't compete with the professional actors in Los Angeles. Even in rejection, he has gained some inner resistance, refusing to fall back into the role of the put upon cripple. The change in Billy has a ripple effect across the characters on the island.

This is a fascinating play, a parade of characters who alternate from nasty to tender. The honesty that comes out of the mouths of these people would be alarming if not for the comic delivery. Babbybobby is likely to haul off and hit anyone at any time. Billy's adopted aunts freely judge him as not particularly smart and nothing to look at. Yet they adore him. The one sane person is the Doctor (Kelly Huett) who wryly attends to islanders' physical ailments.

Director Marty Epstein pulls this together as an ensemble effort, each actor delivering a rich performance. Standouts include McCoy as Billy and Merlino as Helen. Merlino is absolutely convincing both in her accent and her nastiness. The production crew does a terrific job, from stage management to set, sound and lighting. Dialect coach Alan Hudson keeps everyone in authentic accent that is both strong and intelligible.

The Cripple of Inishmaan is part of a citywide festival of Irish plays. Other plays in the festival will run at The Aux Dog Theater, The Mother Road Theater, The Adobe Theater and The Desert Rose Playhouse in March and April.

Playwright Martin McDonagh wrote The Cripple of Inishmaan in 1995 when he was in his mid twenties. He has since written many more dark-humor plays as well as screenplays. His screenplay for the film In Bruges was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar in 2008.

The Cripple of Inishmaan, by Martin McDonagh and directed by Marty Epstein, runs at The Vortex Theatre, 2004 ½ Central Ave. SE, through March 4. Performances run Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sunday at 2 pm. General admission for adults is $15. Students, $10. For reservations, call 505-247-8600, or purchase at the Theatre's website:

Photo: Alan Mitchell Photography

--Rob Spiegel

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