A Skull in Connemara

Though Martin McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara, is set in Leenane, Ireland, it’s hard not to think of a front yard in Hampden during Halloween. In Todd Rosenthal’s set for CenterStage, the grey (plastic) headstones stick up at awkward angles, creating a cheap Hollywood gothic. Then the lights go down, and as they do, the gravestones start to look real, and the shadows add a weird dimension: a drab palette of exhaustion.

(l-r) Si Osborne as Mick and Jordan J. Brown (Photo © Richard Anderson)

Against this chaotic, maximalist set, the characters of Connemara start to pop their heads out of the earth and live their minimalist lives. What CenterStage comes up with is worth the dig: a quickly paced, darkly funny, and largely unsentimental peek into the collective brain of a small village that has more free time than it needs.

Mick (Si Osborne) wanders out, and opens up by looking at a gravestone. His weathered expression, and his thinning hair cast a pall. As a part time job, for pocket change, Mick has taken on the job of exhuming old bones – and skulls – at the local church to make room for new ones.

Given the small acreage of the graveyard, each dead body gets seven years before turnover. And now Mick’s wife, dead seven years after her intoxicated husband drove their car into a ditch, is coming under the shovel.

Then the older Maryjohnny Rafferty (Barbara Kingsley) wanders in, sits down, starts to drink, and complains about a 27 year old insult she received from a crowd of young children. She’s an Irish version of “Seinfeld”‘s Cosmo Kramer, and the drama seems to switch gears into a sitcom. Then comes Mairtin Hanlon (Jordan J. Brown), a clueless young man who’s going to act as Mick’s sidekick in the graveyard. Finally, rounding out the quartet, his older brother Thomas Hanlon (Richard Thierot) is a small town Keystone Kop, who gets most of his inspiration from the American cop show, “Quincy.”

This is, in brief, a town where people and relationships coagulate, and everyone’s waiting for something – anything – to happen. An actual murder, or even drowning while drunk in a bucket of piss, would be welcome to relieve the drudgery of life in Ireland’s Wild West.  And when those things don’t happen, they amuse themselves by assuming that somehow, earlier in life, something actually did happen. Insults last three decades, and crimes, real and imagined, go unsolved.

So, yes, it makes perfect sense that A Skull in Connemara is about digging up graves. In a world where the imagination far outstrips actual reality, the dead is all these characters have left to play around with. By the end, the line between the dead and undead is effectively blurred.

I’ll leave the rest – and there’s a lot of it – to the imagination, because McDonagh’s twisted cul de sacs are best followed blindly.  As the characters start to feed on American detective shows and Irish pop singers for their inspiration, strange growths develop, and, yes, actual ghosts do walk the earth in this Zombie wasteland packed with Irish Cliches and American pop culture.

BJ Jones directs this production with a steady hand, and, it seems, is determined to avoid playing this for the obvious punch lines. The Irish accents remain, but the characters seem comfortably American: low-key and unself-conscious. Missing from the mix is a physical sense of involuntary intimacy that usually drives these small-town narratives. While the characters have spent a lifetime dealing with one another, baiting one another and pushing one anothers’ buttons, the actors still seemed to be feeling out the space between them. (Maybe that’s in part because there was so much space; the Head Theater is still in a process of transformation.)

If that slows the first half down, the second is definitely worth waiting for. McDonagh’s characters are almost numb to the workings of the outer world, and the more surreal the play gets, the more we find ourselves sucked into the collective brain of Leenane.

Osborne delivers a solid performance as Mick that leaves his character comfortably at the center of this crazy, inbred cabal of misfits. Sympathy isn’t necessarily something we’d expect to feel for someone who bashes skulls for fun, and who drunk-drove his wife to an early death. But we do.

As Maryjohnny Rafferty, Barbara Kingsley doesn’t steal the scenes, but she has a real presence. While Maryjohnny is a nag, a gossip, an alcoholic, all those traits seem to have merged in Kingsley’s performance:  Maryjohnny is comfortable with who she is.

That’s not true of her grandson Thomas; Richard Theirot’s deadpan performance as a cop who wishes he had someone to arrest is one of the show’s delights. Jordan Brown, as the young and boneheaded Mairtin, seems to be more of an accessory to Osborne’s Mick than a dramatic foil.

At the very end — and I’m not giving anything away — McDonagh leaves us staring at another churchyard skull. It’s not a cathartic moment — and neither is the play. But bemusement seems to be the defining emotion here. And while it never tries to dig deeper than the characters do, it does make you want to return to the bizarre town of Leenane, where nothing happens and everything happens.

A Skull in Connemara runs thru March 4, 2012 at CenterStage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD.
A Skull in Connemara

by Martin McDonagh
Directed by BJ Jones
Produced by CenterStage
Reviewed by John Barry

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