Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has a sharp tongue and a kind heart, and both characteristics inform his play The Cripple of Inishmaan. Set in 1934, on one of the cluster of islands off western Ireland at the mouth of Galway Bay, the play examines various kinds of acting and authenticity. It looks at secrets and stories, news and gossip, and where they intersect. It considers choice, fate, and what makes a community or a family. All this is reeled out in cunningly crafted conversations among the idiosyncratic characters of the rocky, sea-bound village.
Stories are told, unraveled by others, and re-worked — in the first scene in the current production at Deep Dish Theater, under the direction of Tom Marriott, there’s a wonderful physical metaphor for this: The two middle-aged sisters, Kate (Julie Oliver) and Eileen (Marcia Edmundson) fret over the whereabouts of their adopted child, Cripple Billy (Ishai Buchbinder), now a young man, while Eileen crochets from yarn in her capacious apron pockets. But Kate has the other end of the yarn, and pulls out the stitches nearly as fast as Aileen can make them, rewinding the yarn in the opposite direction.
This is just the first of a series of darkly comic interactions among the characters, many of which will have you laughing aloud. These people have known each other all their lives; you’d think there’d be no secrets…but you’d be wrong. The story’s action is instigated by the appearance — announced by Johnnypateenmike (Kevin Silva) in his self-appointed role as island newsmonger — of an American film company. The crew has landed on the neighboring island! This really happened, resulting in the film Man of Aran, which gave a depiction of life in the islands that bore minimal relation to reality. McDonagh uses the filmmaking to explore the borderlands between fiction and life, but some of the islanders are mad to get to the set, sure that this is their door to another reality.
First among these is the fierce young woman Helen (Samantha Rahn), who convinces boatman Babbybobby (Eric Swenson) to row her and her slightly dim brother Bartley (Andrew Crabtree) over, sure that with a few kisses in the right places she will become a film star rather than the girl who collects the eggs and fends off advances of priests. But Cripple Billy also sees this as a way out of his restricted life, in which Cripple always precedes his name and in which no one has any expectations of a happy future for him. It is — but not in the way he expects. The play’s second act is all twists and turnabouts, and is ultimately very moving.
Marriott’s direction is deft; he keeps the pace just rapid enough, and makes room for both the kindness and the coarseness of the people. Ishai Buchbinder, who was so marvelous in the Ghost & Spice swansong of Harold and Maude, is quite fine as Billy, and the very young actress Samantha Rahn completely rules as Helen. The world has a few years, but when this girl gets out of high school — watch out! No prisoners will be taken. She’ll be “pegging eggs at heads” right and left. In this play, she has the very funniest scene, involving a history lesson concerning Ireland and England.
Marcia Edmundson and Julie Oliver together do some of the best work I’ve seen from either of them as the two sisters who took in Cripple Billy as a baby. They run a store that’s a village hub, so all circles around them and their foibles: Johnnypateen with his “news” for which he extorts eggs, Bartley with his passion for “sweeties,” and Helen delivering the eggs.
In fact, all the cast is strong. Eric Swenson turns on a dime for a real shocker in the second act, the smaller but crucial parts of the doctor and the old Mammy are well filled by John Honeycutt and Adair Wiess, and Kevin Silva as the abrasive Johnnypateenmike proves far more subtle than he initially appears.
The show’s flaws are technical. The lighting is not very sophisticated and on May 1, the lighting changes were clunky. The scene changes took too long, resulting in an uncomfortable jerkiness. But, these issues were not enough to spoil the experience of a smart play well acted.
The Cripple of Inishmaan continues through Saturday, May 18. For complete information about this production, please view the sidebar.