When I heard from a friend that Druid Theatre's production of The Cripple of Inishmaan was part of the Irish government's attempt to introduce Irish culture to the United States, it was a little hard for me to believe. I thought, "But isn't this a McDonagh piece?" I'm not sure you'd want to define your culture by Martin McDonaugh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Pillowman), unless your intention is to say your culture is filled with crazy, violent, unpredictable substance abusers who also just happen to be really funny people.
The Cripple of Inishmaan is heartbreakingly funny and chock full of recognizable and fully realized characters. Directed by Garry Hynes, co-founder and artistic director of Druid, Cripple is focused and fast paced without moving fast. The concern that you won't be able to understand the actors and their brogue dialects is dispelled within the first 30 seconds through her very smart direction, slowing the actors down and making the tempo a part of who they are.
Dearbhia Molloy (Aunt Eileen) and Ingrid Craigie (Aunt Kate) speak crisply and authentically, allowing the ear to acclimate easily. Francis O'Connor's set and costumes place you immediately where you are: a poor community where water has tempered their lives as much as the absence of wealth. The set is simple. Greenish blue walls that look moist and mildewed bracket a simple grocery store that lacks the latest sweeties from America but does have a buttload of peas.
The set changes as the places change, never really losing the walls of the store but moving them out and away as set pieces are added or removed. Costumes are appropriately weathered and worn, without making them appear as if they've only got the one set — even if they're in them for the bulk of the production. Davy Cunningham's lights work well in the refurbished Dock Street Theatre, blanketing every area of the stage without becoming its own character. The sound design is lovely, at times hauntingly so, perfectly set for the space. The music composed for the show by Colin Towns works well between scenes, at once closing off the previous scene as it sets the next.
Each of the actors, most of whom have worked with Druid previously, turn in beautifully authentic performances. The old aunts, Eileen and Kate work seamlessly together, engaging from the first breath. Looking out into the audience and bemoaning the late arrival of Billy Claven, these two women stand still, repeating lines, looking at the front door, and conjecturing on what might have befallen their beloved charge, setting the pace for the show as they inform us that the action is within the lines and that we are in for some huge laughs. The door swings open as JohnnyPateenMike (Dermot Crowley) bursts in with news to share. JohnnyPateenMike always has news, whether he is gleaning it by reading newspapers or by listening outside of doors. Crowley takes over the stage in his stained pants, making JohnnyPateenMike as large as his stories.
By the time we meet Cripple Billy, we've learned about a possible family feud, a bit about the inhabitants of the town, and the biggest news of all — an American filmmaker has chosen the island next to Inishmaan to film. From this point forward, most of the characters under 40 are trying to get into the film, certain that it will be their ticket out of Inishmaan and their reward for being truly representative of the Irish spirit.
As we begin to learn snippets of Cripple Billy's life story, we see that, for him, the stakes are high. Tadhg Murphy's physicality as Billy is consistent and honest and made me want to wake my chiropractor at the end of the show. Murphy's movement is labored without being practiced; there was no point in his work that made me think, "Ah, see... Hard to pull that kind of twisted body thing off for two hours, huh?" Murphy's characterization of this never-been-kissed kid who reads and dreams about a new life away from the place that, despite his protestations, continues to call him Cripple Billy, doesn't elicit sympathy as much as it does empathy. The audience connects to Billy. When he says, "There are plenty of people around here as cripple as me, just not on the outside," he speaks the truth. He bears his infirmities well, and his needs mirror our own.
In fact, as harsh as the lives of these characters are, they are all speaking truths — to each other and about each other and at each other. Clare Dunne's Slippy Helen, the area bully and batterer, is combative and funny. Her brother Bartley, played by Laurence Kinlan, is a youthful, high-pitched sugar addict, fittingly afraid of his abusive sister, who is prone to lash out both with her tongue and her fists. But, through them, we can see how connected each of these lives are. Dunne, who might be the most difficult to understand in spots with her quick, angry language, fights her way through the show, explaining why in her many stories of groping and kissing. You'll want to protect Bartley from her, because it's clear his sometimes inappropriate statements aren't from a dark place; they simply reflect his youthfulness and naïveté. Watching them work together is like watching family. They are dysfunctional and loving, regardless of their actions. You know as Bartley tries to inform Slippy Helen to behave better, he just isn't going to succeed and will just end up on the receiving end of both tongue and fist.
Perhaps one of my favorite performances came from Liam Carney, an understated loner and owner of a boat who finally threatens and throttles JohnnyPateenMike as we all want to do at one point or another. Carney's BabbyBobby is simply played. His hard-shelled crab, a seaman with an attitude, is just a broken shell when we see him with Cripple Billy. Well, at least the first time.
And finally, Mammy O'Dougal (Nancy E. Carroll), the bed-ridden drunkard with the snarky lines, is brilliant in her short time onstage. In her scene with the well-played doctor, Paul Vincent O'Connor, it's vintage McDonagh at work again. You don't want to laugh; some of this is appalling, but you can't help it. You laugh. You gasp. You want to see more. Classic McDonagh, whose funny, poignant work is brought to sure-footed life by Druid Theatre.