Morning, noon, and night, gigantic waves from the windswept Atlantic crash against the craggy cliffs of three forlorn rocky outcrops at the mouth of Galway Bay. These are Ireland’s legendary Aran Islands, the setting for Martin McDonagh’s Cripple of Inishmaan, now playing at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. A co-production of Galway’s renowned theater, Druid, and New York’s Atlantic Theater Company, it’s part of a five month tour of the U.S., and no fan of contemporary Irish drama will want to miss it.
McDonagh has come to be known as a Jekyll-and-Hyde playwright whose hilarious, rustic characters and plots take a dark, violent turn without notice. (The effect, at times, is a little like “Green Acres” meets Norman Bates.)
Cripple of Inishmaan takes us back to the rural west of Ireland in 1934. The impoverished Aran Islands, Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer—the English spellings for the large, middle, and small islands of the trio—and their small, Irish-speaking communities lacked modern conveniences, including electricity, and automobiles. Making the best of it, they relied on small farms, fishing, and themselves to sustain a simple, grueling daily existence.
Imagine the islanders’ surprise, then, when American moviemaker Robert Flaherty showed up on the main island of Inishmore, carrying cameras and crew to film a documentary on the lives and hard times of the inhabitants. More surprising still, all the parts in the film were to be played by local residents. The resulting product, “Man of Aran,” is regarded today as a classic documentary film even though key scenes were scripted to provide a plot.
McDonagh seizes on this real-life event to create a fictional backstory that unfolds primarily on the difficult-to-reach island of Inishmaan, well beyond the view of Flaherty’s cameras.
The island’s lone general store is staffed by elderly, cranky, but (usually) good-hearted Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy). Both rely on the devious JohnnyPateenMike (Dermot Crowley) for outside news. He’s a local “character” with no visible means of support, the kind we’d probably find pushing a Safeway cart down the street today in DC. On the island, he extracts free groceries in exchange for his tedious tidbits, supplementing this by stealing from his infirm Mammy’s (Nancy E. Carroll’s) pension and insurance proceeds. Meanwhile, he tries to kill her off with an ample diet of whisky and locally concocted ‘white lightnin’ (“poteen”).
The store’s patrons also include bumbling Bartley (Laurence Kinlan) and his nasty, potty-mouthed sister Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne). Good-natured but simple-minded, Bartley cares only about certain brands of imported American candies (“sweets”) and longs to obtain a fancy telescope. Helen loves to cuff him around and to lob eggs at both him and other targets of opportunity.
Enter Billy Clavan (Tadhg Murphy), aka “Cripple Billy,” the play’s title character. With his deformed leg and arm, he’s regarded as useless, a butt of jokes for the islanders. Orphaned not long after birth by his parents (the cause of whose demise changes at every retelling), he’s been raised by his “aunts,” Kate and Eileen, who have feelings for him but patronize him as well.
Not surprisingly, Billy longs to escape his surroundings. Miraculously, the opportunity arises when JohnnyPateenMike reveals the arrival of Flaherty’s crew on Inishmore. Hoping to get a part in the film, Bartley and Helen hitch a ride to the big island in surly fisherman BabbyBobby’s (Liam Carney’s) curragh (a light, Aran rowboat). Billy contrives to go along—changing his own life and the lives of others forever.
For all its hilarity, and occasional violence, Cripple of Inishmaan is a problem play whose snappy dialogue only thinly masks the ongoing pain of its characters.
Billy’s problems are the most obvious. “Differently-abled,” his physical deformities are disabling but his quick, inventive mind is intact, and he’s actually smarter than any character in the play. But the island’s denizens patronize him, sneering at him, imagining his head to be as infirm as his body.
But the neighbors, too, have issues. As the stress of poverty and isolation bears down upon them, each lives a life of quiet desperation. Billy’s dotty aunties express this through bizarre behavior. JohnnyPateenMike thoughtlessly invades everyone’s space. Helen and BabbyBobby act out their frustrations by lashing out. And Mammy drives her son mad by resolutely refusing to die.
On a deeper level, the tomfoolery, the jokes, the snappy patter of McDonagh’s dialogue is all surface, a way for his characters to avoid that which can’t be expressed. Beneath the entertainment lie heavy hearts longing for lives that can never be.
Druid/Atlantic’s production of Cripple is bright, sprightly, and deep. With its dark, minimal but highly effective sets, the play unfolds briskly and irresistibly, save for a few moments in the second act where the playwright’s otherwise snappy dialogue could still use a snip or two.
The onstage Irish dialect is generally easy to understand even for those unfamiliar with it. But we did miss a line or three in the first act, probably because the actors needed to speak up a bit more in the Eisenhower’s ample space.
In a play that largely relies on character, the company couldn’t have chosen a better ensemble cast, all crisply directed by Garry Hynes. Ingrid Craigie’s and Dearbhla Molloy’s dotty aunties distill the essence of small-town morality, passing judgment upon all while silently forgiving their own peccadillos. They are this play’s Greek chorus, trying to piece together the narrative while ignoring its key lessons.
As Bartley and Helen, Laurence Kinlan and Clare Dunne add some welcome Three Stooges slapstick to the proceedings. In Kinlan’s hands, Bartley becomes the only true naïf in the play, an innocent goof with simple needs and little if any understanding.
Clare Dunne’s Helen is another story. She’s the play’s seething id. Her salty language—probably atypical in a 1934 islander—would embarrass a Baltimore stevedore. Her aggressive head-slapping and profligate misuse of eggs barely mask an almost lethal boredom and frustration. It’s an immensely satisfying, over-the-top performance.
In smaller roles, Liam Carney, Nancy E. Carroll, and Paul Vincent O’Connor help make the production tick. Carney’s brooding BabbyBobby possesses a heart that conceals perhaps the deepest feelings in the play, though Bobby’s methods could use some refinement.
Meanwhile, O’Connor’s Doctor McSharry brings some objective cohesion to the play’s narrative by attempting to impose objective truth on medicine as on life, with limited success in both.
Carroll’s Mammy O’Dougal is a small role that packs a good wallop. Her Mammy is an ornery cuss whose sheer will to survive overcomes her seeming frailty, driving her good-for-nothing son to near-madness.
But this play really revolves around the characters of JohnnyPateenMike and Cripple Billy. A cowardly blowhard, Dermot Crowley’s Johnny is a dreamer, not a doer. He only imagines boldness and courage, whereas Tadhg Murphy’s much put-upon Cripple Billy actually has the guts to take action. The interplay between Crowley and Murphy, between blather and action—the Irish dilemma—is the heart and the soul of this play.
The Cripple of Inishmaan is a must see. It’s brilliant, gripping drama, hilarious, thoughtful, and sometimes genuinely scary. It’s yet another nail in the coffin of Yeats’ “Celtic Twilight,” which has given way in the last quarter century to a new generation of Irish playwrights who, like Martin McDonagh, are providing English-speaking theater with its latest, and edgiest, Golden Age.
The Cripple of Inishmaan
by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Garry Hynes
Produced by Druid and Atlantic Theater Company. Presented at the Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: Two hours, fifteen minutes including intermission.
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN