NEW MILFORD — Martin McDonagh is an Irish playwright who, after ten years of living on the dole in London while cranking out radio scripts that were regularly rejected by the BBC, suddenly found himself wildly successful at the age of 27. That was the year he had four hit plays on the London stage at the same time: his “Leenane trilogy,” consisting of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, and The Lonesome West, plus The Cripple of Inishmaan.
Over a period of years Theatreworks New Milford has staged all three parts of the Leenane trilogy, under the direction of Richard Pettibone. Now they are presenting Cripple of Inishman. Like the others, this work is set in the bleak windswept islands off the coast of western Ireland, where the people live brutish and benighted lives. But while the plays in the trilogy might all be characterized by the bumper sticker “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” this one is offered up as a comedy. Sort of.
To fully appreciate McDonagh’s humor, it helps to recognize what he is satirizing here — the blarney-laden, folksy, stereotypical vision of Irish country life, as portrayed in popular culture, filled with whimsical charm and humor, together with courageous endurance in the face of cruel exploitation by their British overlords.
In this play the stereotypes are turned on their heads: the lovely lass is a foul mouthed bully who clubs animals to death and cracks eggs over the head of her feckless brother; the wise, old local story teller who knows everyone’s history is a shameless liar and gossip, who plies his aged mother with whiskey in the hope that it will kill her; the sensitive young man at the center of the story is a manipulative schemer, and so forth. It’s important to remember what he’s poking fun at.
The plot is set in motion by a true event: In 1934, the American film director Robert Flaherty visited the Aran Islands to make what would become a famous, award winning documentary, Man of Aran, on the island of Inishmaan, the middle one of the three Aran Islands. When the village crier, Johnny Pateenmike, announces that any locals chosen to be in the movie will be flown to Hollywood for a screen test, it puts an idea into the head of Billy Claven, the title character.
Billy, who was born with a useless arm and a crippled leg, is an orphan, who was raised as a foster child by his two “aunties” after his parents died in a mysterious drowning accident shortly after he was born. Although the aunties care about him, they consider him a hopeless case, both for the fact that no girl is ever likely to marry him, and because he is a hopeless dreamer, who spends too much time reading books, or staring at cows.
Hating the boredom and loneliness of his existence on Inishmaan, Billy imagines that his life will be different if he could only get to Inishmore, where the movie is being filmed, and talk his way to Hollywood. Not only would this be a ticket to excitement, fame and riches, but he might be able to get a girlfriend, and even discover the truth about what happened to his parents. To this end, he cons a local boatman, Babby Bobby, into taking him to Inishmore, defying the superstition against allowing a cripple on a boat.
Despite the grotesque behavior of the characters, Billy’s story is moving, and his portrayal by Joseph Russo is deeply sympathetic. In contrast, Alison Bernhardt’s portrayal of Slippy Helen, the girl Billy secretly yearns for; James Hipp as her brother Bartley, besotted with desire for candy; and Tom Libonate as Johnny Pateenmike are played for broad humor. The production I saw on opening night was not helped by the presence of a claque of friends of the cast, who guffawed loudly at each and every line so you felt trapped in a laugh track. At times the audience laughter seemed to overwhelm the performers who were almost drowned out.
Susan Pettibone and Sonnie Osborne displayed their considerable talents as usual in the roles of Billy’s aunties, Eileen and Kate. Keir Hansen, in a welcome return to the main stage at New Milford, was a sullen and intensely private Babby Bobby, Frank Arcaro was the lone voice of reason as the village doctor, and in the performance I saw, Jane Farnol filled in beautifully for an ailing Ellen Burnett as Johnny Pateenmike’s redoubtably drunken mother.
There was one clearly funny scene in the second act when the villagers (minus Billy) sit on a long bench in the village hall watching a screening of the Flaherty film, and squabbling over its authenticity, and another where Slippy Helen — whom Alison Bernhardt endows with multiple layers of depth — is terrifyingly threatening when she gets her hands on a basket of eggs, which really squish when broken over someone’s head.
As usual, Lesley Neilson-Bowman’s artfully battered costumes, and Glenn Couture and Richard Pettibone’s grimly realistic sets, are wonderful to look at, and help to capture the essence of a bleak time and a lonely place. There is much less blood, violence, and dismemberment in this play than in the segments of the trilogy (or in McDonagh’s later plays, such as Pillowman or A Behanding in Spokane, so I guess the label of comedy is justified. But don’t expect The Quiet Man or Finian’s Rainbow.
(Performances continue Friday and Saturday nights until October 12. There is also a Sunday afternoon matinee scheduled for October 6.
Tickets are $23, reserved, and can be ordered by calling 860-350-6863 or visiting TheatreWorks.us.)