The Cripple of Inishmaan
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Rob Curran, Fri., Dec. 1, 2000
The Cripple of Inishmaan: Revolting Defects, Cruel PleasuresAuditorium on Waller Creek,
Through December 2
An Inishmaan that does not exist, an Inishmaan that is but a dream.
Watching the Different Stages production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, I chuckle twice and I have one good laugh. But that's disappointing for a Martin McDonagh play. When his Leenane Trilogy came to Ireland, I remember holding my nose to quiet my laughter so I could catch the next line in A Skull in Connemara. I remember worrying about my sanity when I almost wet myself listening to the death threats in The Lonesome West. I never thought a town as small as Leenane in the west of Connemara could be as thrilling as gangland L.A. So why couldn't the Aran Islands, another few miles West, work the same magic? Who lost my laughs: McDonagh, Different Stages, or me?
The same idiom that shocked Leenane to onstage life like a toaster in the bath trips up the characters in The Cripple of Inishmaan like surplus wires. The Cripple comes as the first play in a new trilogy based on the three Aran Islands, Europe's westernmost isles. Nobody spoke English on Inishmaan (the Middle Island) in the 1930s; the language there bore only distant ties to contemporary Connemara-speak. To use the same style of dialogue on Inishmaan as the contemporary Leenane plays is not only anachronistic -- like producing Chekhov in New York street Russian -- it makes McDonagh look like a one-trick Connemara pony. The imagery that McDonagh borrowed from the Irish language requires no accent to give it color. Director Norman Blumensaadt should not have to expend time and energy coaching strong Connemara accents. The Different Stages company bring this script to life, but to my eyes, they work too hard to get a chance to enjoy it.
When he's hot, McDonagh plots showdowns like a screenwriter. He makes theatre more fun by using film techniques. The captivating part of this story comes from the playwright's use of Patrick Flaherty's 1934 documentary film Man of Aran. This film portrayed the people of Aran as reflections of the islands they lived on: hard as the rocks, busy as the wind, miserable as the rain. Like the land, the people in the film represented physical nature; like the islands, they toiled against the sea. They secured themselves in family in the same way that the grass on the treeless islands lodges itself between rocks.
McDonagh's lead character, Billy, represents the opposite: orphaned, physically soft, pensive, cunning. Chad Daniels plays "Cripple Billy" with the right measures of pathos and cheeky pride. Blumensaadt tilts McDonagh's Aran Island of bullies, overbearing mothers, gossip addiction, conversational starvation, and candy brands at the right angle for the audience's cruel pleasure. As the gossip, Johnnypateenmike, Harvey Guion walks the tightrope between despicable voyeur and indispensable news reporter. Todd M. Rennels credits McDonagh's penchant for the dark side as Babbybobby, the troubled man from County Antrim. One of my chuckles comes as Babbybobby raises a rock at Johnnypateenmike. Rennels does a better Irish accent than most Irish people I know.
The other chuckle comes from the courtship between beautiful Helen (Dana Tanner), who behaves like a farm animal, and unattractive Billy, who has the courage of a saint and the emotions of a poet. I save my laugh for the scene in which all the characters apart from Billy sit in a row gazing out at the audience. By now, I have familiarized myself with each character's revolting defect. They are watching Man of Aran, and I am waiting for them to bludgeon each other. Actress Jennifer Underwood gives grace to the gom Kate as she chats to her stone. David Loewy glories in the role of Bartley, the eejit with the telescope fixation. Gay Gaughan Hurst (as Johnnypateen-mike's alcoholic mother) inspires her company to its highest moments by dragging her son into a fight.
If Martin McDonagh wishes to build on his reputation as a master of theatrical art, he must experiment with language in his subsequent plays. A trilogy of works set in East Austin would confirm his genius. With their talents, I believe that Different Stages could have made The Lonesome West, A Skull in Connemara, or The Beauty Queen of Leenane stay with me longer than a childhood trauma. The Cripple of Inishmaan does not worry me in the same way. I look forward to Norman Blumensaadt's next production. Meanwhile, The Cripple of Inishmaan drifts around in my head with hazy dreams of home.