Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Cripple of Inishmaan

[First published in Show Business Weekly]

Martin McDonagh’s bleak The Cripple of Inishmaan doesn’t offer much hope, but it provides lots of laughs. Francis O’Connor’s set and costumes strip comfort down to functionality and Garry Hynes wisely follows McDonagh’s slow pacing to the letter. These choices preserve the exciting dullness of Inishmaan and its commiserating community.

Kate and Eileen (Marie Mullen and Dearbhla Molloy) operate a rundown shop, selling canned goods—“mostly peas”—in a lonely corner of the already lonely Irish island, circa 1934. Their only joy comes from caring for poor crippled Billy (Aaron Monaghan), just as the unscrupulous gossip, JohnnyPateenMike (David Pearse), lives only for newsworthy feuds. Here, emotions are buried under gruff veneers as a survival mechanism: BabbyBobby (Andrew Connolly) calls himself “a hard character” and Helen (Kerry Condon) lashes out, for she knows what happens to people like her dim brother, Bartley (Laurence Kinlan), who take things at face value.

Billy is a funhouse mirror to these people—he reflects their softness back at them, which permits The Cripple of Inishmaan to transcend the farcical The Lieutenant of Inishmore (a play that often drowned its dark humor in darker action). However, Billy is restless. He spends his time cow-watching not because he’s slow, but because his intelligence depresses him—he knows that he’ll never kiss a girl, especially one as fiery as Helen. Given the chance, he chases the American dream to Hollywood, leaving a hole in the hearts of those who “don’t mind being stuck with him” (Inishmaan for “love”).

Life goes on, and Hynes’s minimalist staging and Davy Cunningham’s grim lighting maximize the effect of the slow-boiling comic naturalism. When the town assembles to watch The Man of Aran, their casual banter meets the Hollywood distortion of Irish life: their seated solemnity is far richer and livelier than any film’s illusions (“It was a tall fella in a grey donkey jacket,” says Helen of the shark). This is a cruel comedy, but the high quality of Druid Theatre’s production—from Monaghan’s physical control to Mullen and Molloy’s comic timing—helps us reach the little kindnesses (and cruel necessities) that so vividly come to those who wait.

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