Those familiar with the works of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh will be interested to know that “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” now being performed at Pioneer Theatre Company, does not shine the spotlight on the human trait of cruelty quite as brightly as some of his other plays do.
That’s not to say the downtrodden, tiny-village-dwelling Irish folks that inhabit this play (and all McDonagh’s plays) don’t exhibit some cruelty, both emotional and physical. They certainly do. The town gossip (though he’s not very good at it — he thinks a goose biting a cat is newsworthy), Johnnypateenmike (Craig Bockhorn), is trying to kill his aged mother (Patricia Fraser) by making her drink herself to death. The devil-tongued Helen (Michelle Six) cracks eggs on the skull of her brother Bartley (Corey Behnke) and is an assassin-for-hire when it comes to neighbors’ pesky animals. Everyone refers to Billy (Liam Christopher O’Brien), a physically deformed but mentally superior young man, as “Cripple Billy.”
There’s more cruelty, too, but I won’t spoil it.
The difference between this and some of McDonaugh’s other plays (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” for example, which Salt Lake Acting Company did not long ago) is that the depths to which these bleak, desperate characters sink don’t weigh the entire play down. Yes, there are lies and suffering and pain — but the end result is surprisingly upbeat, especially considering what we’ve been through.
Oddly, this upbeat ending almost seems non-McDonaugh-ish, and not as satisfying as it would have been if things had ended as drearily as we guessed they would.
The plot centers around the island of Inishmaan in 1934, when an American filmmaker was coming around to film a documentary. Billy, eager to leave this village of gossips and critics, winds up getting whisked to Hollywood for a shot at being in pictures.
Meanwhile, his two aunts, who have cared for him since his parents died young, fret about his well-being. The slightly sane Aunt Kate (Mary Fogarty) even begins to talking to rocks, while the mostly sane Aunt Eileen (Tandy Cronyn) tries to go about running their impoverished little country store, which sells mostly cans of peas.
The world of these characters is dismal, enhanced greatly by Peter Harrison’s magnificent set design, in which the dingy, jagged walls of the country store jut upwards toward the gray sky behind it. Yet despite it, they all have sense of humor. This humor can often be dark and even mean-spirited, but it is humor nonetheless. As a result, the play itself is more comedy than tragedy, albeit a pitch-black one. (“It will all end in tears,” predicts Eileen of some turn of events. “Tears or death,” says Kate, with which Eileen readily agrees, as if those two possibilities are equal both in likelihood and appeal.)
O’Brien is outstanding as the crippled Billy, hopelessly in love with the vulgar Helen. Michelle Six is a stand-out, too, as Helen, making her positively mean with just a hint of vulnerability (which she keeps well-hidden).
The entire cast, in fact, is right on target, leaving no weak links. The characters, who are all either insane, odd or stupid, resonate and come to life with their bickerings, stubbornness and human weaknesses. This is a darkly funny, altogether very satisfying play.
I began to consider myself a Martin McDonagh aficionado at this point. This was the third play of his I'd seen in less than six months, and one of them I'd even seen on Broadway ("Lonesome West"). I enjoy his plays, because they're always darkly funny, and then something extraordinarily cruel or inhumane happens. Always. It's great.