Chapel Hill-based Wordshed Productions, which specializes in literary adaptations, will present its first naturalistic drama, The Lonesome West by prolific young Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (born 1970), March 25-April 10 in the Studio 6 Theatre in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Set Leenane, a small town in County Galway, in 1993, The Lonesome West is a darkly comic tale of contemporary Ireland, like McDonagh's 1996 masterpiece, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which won four 1998 Tony Awards® and co-won the 1998 Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding play. (The Beauty Queen of Leenane made its Triangle debut at PlayMakers Repertory Company March 10-April 4, 1999.)
"I became familiar with McDonagh's work when I was studying for my master's degree in theater at Trinity College in Dublin in 1998 and 1999," says Wordshed's founding artistic director Matthew Spangler. Dr. Spangler, who earned an M.Phil. in Irish Theatre from Trinity College Dublin and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill, will direct and star in The Lonesome West, which made its Broadway debut on April 27, 1999, ran for only 55 performances, but nevertheless earned four Tony nominations (including a nomination for Best Play).
In reviewing the original West End and Broadway productions of The Lonesome West, The Guardian of London wrote, "Mr. McDonagh's great strength is that he combines a love of traditional story-telling with the savage ironic humour of the modern generation.... [I]n the extraordinary The Lonesome West, two brothers, one of whom has killed their father, are closeted together in undying hostility like a penned-up Cain and Abel." And Variety claimed, "The Lonesome West... represents a leap forward in ambition and achievement for McDonagh.... [It] offers... [an] in-depth examination of character and is, in the end, a moving and complicated examination of redemption that might even offer a glimmer — a wee distant glimmer — of hope."
The New York Times called Martin McDonagh the "most original and pertinent Irish playwright in years," and Irish literary critic and journalist Fintan O'Toole wrote in The Irish Times, "McDonagh is more than just a very clever theatrical stylist. His tricks and turns have a purpose. They are bridges over a deep pit of sympathy and sorrow, illuminated by a tragic vision of stunted and frustrated lives"
Matt Spangler studied McDonagh's work in Ireland and saw The Beauty Queen of Leenane in New York in the fall of 1998. "I thought it was terrific," he says.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996) is the first play in Martin McDonagh's critically acclaimed "Connemara Trilogy," three dark dramas about dysfunctional families. Their gothic plot twists and liberal doses of macabre humor have some critics in the Emerald Isle claiming that McDonagh perpetuates "unfair stereotypes of the Irish as violent, lazy, stupid alcoholics," says Spangler. The other two members of the trilogy, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West (both 1997), are also set the remote small town of Leenane, which is located in Connemara in County Galway, north of the Aran Islands.
While studying in Ireland, Spangler visited Leenane. "Leenane is a real town on the west coast of Ireland," says Spangler. "I've been there a couple of times. It's this little town. It has about five shops in the center of town. Two of them are pubs. I suppose that, in the wintertime, it would be a very dreary place to be."
Spangler says, "The Lonesome West is about the two Connor brothers who live together in a house in rural Ireland. Before the play begins, the older brother, Coleman [Chris Chiron], has killed their dad. He shot him in the head with a shotgun. In response, the younger brother, Valene [Matthew Spangler], blackmails Coleman and agrees that he won't tell anybody that Coleman murdered their dad as long as Coleman will give Valene his part of the inheritance. So, Valene gets everything, and Coleman gets nothing.
"At the beginning of the play," Spangler says, "Valene and Coleman are living in this house together. They hate each other, and they're desperately trying to keep this secret."
The play's other two characters are Father Welsh (John Murphy) and Girleen Kelleher (SaRAH! Kocz).
"Father Welsh is the town priest," Spangler says. "He is trying to get the Connor brothers to make up and stop fighting. Girleen is a neighbor girl who has a crush on Father Welsh and follows him around town."
Staging Wordshed Productions' first naturalistic drama provides considerable challenges for director Matthew Spangler, his cast, and his creative team, which includes assistant director Georgia Martin, set designer Rob Hamilton, lighting designer Steve Dubay, and costume designer Grier Coleman.
"The biggest challenge for the actors," Matt Spangler says, "is getting the Irish dialect right. With the exception of John Murphy, none of us have done an Irish dialect before on stage."
He adds, "For me and Chris, there is another challenge. The play is very physical. There's quite a few scenes of physical violence in the play, and that's always hard to do. Both of us get beaten up nightly. I think we both of us come out the worse for wear.
"In terms of staging [The Lonesome West]," Spangler says, "the biggest challenge is that, in the final scene of the play, everything on the stage gets destroyed. For a theater company on a budget, it's hard to replace all those things every night. There's also an exploding stove in the final scene of the play."
Spangler notes, "For our company, the set is a real departure in the sense that it's a naturalistic set. The play is set within the house that these guys live in. It's not the sort of symbolic set that we usually use in our adaptations."
Matt Spangler adds that the play's lighting also is "naturalistic, rather than the symbolic lighting that we usually use." The costumes, he says, "are contemporary Irish rural wear, what you would see people wearing in the countryside of Ireland."
Wordshed Production's artistic director warns, "There are gunshots in the production, and physical violence on stage. The subject matter is PG-13.
"But," he adds, "I'm thrilled to do one of Martin McDonagh's plays. I've wanted to do one of his plays since I studied him all those years ago in Ireland. It's very thrilling for me.
Wordshed Productions presents The Lonesome West Thursday-Saturday, March 25-27 and April 1-3 and 8-10, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 28 and April 4, at 2 p.m. in the Studio 6 Theatre in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $12 ($5 students and $10 seniors and UNC staff and employees). 919/969-7121. Wordshed Productions: http://www.unc.edu/wordshed/index.htm. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=7303. Parking Alert: The parking lots adjacent to Swain Hall are now paid parking lots.