Unsettled is the residual impression after viewing 1st Stage’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, although, and surely because, the experience delivers on the promise of enfant terrible playwright Martin McDonagh’s penchant for bleak comedy.
Transported off the coast of Ireland to the isolated island of Inishmaan circa 1934, you’ll be entertained by the colorful characterizations of the country folk, you’ll laugh at their oddball ways, admire the sharp, intelligent writing—McDonagh is an Iron Chef of gallows humor—but may be left cold by the script’s refusal to allow even a smidgen of comfort for very long.
The rapid reversals from hilarity to pity, and back, and back again, take a toll. It’s not that the characters don’t express humanity, because they do—the excellent ensemble cast is distinctly invested with authenticity and even drawn with sentimentality—but the layers of woeful affliction piled atop any substantiation of human fellowship pale its effect.
Billy Claven (Josh Adams), the eponymous teenage orphan of the story is an odd duck in a menagerie of strange creatures—he stares at cows and reads books after all—pitiable for his misshapen body, for the general derision lofted his way and for his parents’ abandonment. The dreamy lad concocts an escape from his brackish backwater when he hears that a Hollywood film crew, recently landed on a neighboring isle, is looking for talent.
The central characters in Billy’s life include his “fake aunties” Kate (Susan Holliday) and Eileen (Carol Randolph), who care for the boy and run the village store; the object of his earthly longing and egg-hurling tempest “Slippy” Helen (Megan Graves); her dim-witted brother Bartley (Robert Grimm); the local gossip Johnnypateenmike (Mark Lee Adams) and his alcoholic 90-year old Mammy (Rebecca Lenehan); the violent but standup Babbybobby (John Stange); and the town doctor McSharry (Matt Dewberry).
Josh Adams is completely convincing as the sweet, pained Billy. The part is physically and emotionally demanding, and Adams sinks himself fully in the role, exuding much of the raw dignity that drives our tacit faith in the story. To his credit, the young actor was clearly spent by curtain call.
That being said, Billy’s is not the best part in the play. McDonagh’s caustic perversity is spun full-bore through the gonzo characters Helen, Bartley, Johnnypateenmike and Mammy.
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
Closes April 20, 2014
1524 Spring Hill Road
Approximately 2 hours with 1 intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
The lurching Johnnypateenmike is a ruddy grotesque wonderfully played by Mark Lee Adams. The inveterate hustler trades news about his neighbors for in-kind goods and plies his elderly mother with poteen to croak her sooner, but pay close attention to him, for his artfulness conceals something precious.
Holliday and Randolph are also strong as Billy’s dotty caretakers Kate and Eileen. Grimm is delightful if slightly one-note (not his fault, the character’s written that way).
The design team is to be commended for their work as well, especially JD Madsen’s turntable set and Cheryl Patton Wu’s rustic period costumes.
Steven Carpenter, the director, provides space for the performances to blossom and deserves ample credit for allowing brief glimpses of human decency to peek through McDonagh’s spiked relish for schadenfreude.
The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh . Directed by Steven Carpenter . Featuring Susan Holliday, Carol Randolph, Mark Lee Adams, Josh Adams, Robert Grimm, Megan Graves, John Stange, Matt Dewberry and Rebecca Lenehan . Sound: Neil McFadden . Set: JD Madsen . Lighting: Brian Allard . Costumes: Cheryl Patton Wu . Produced by 1st Stage. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.
Celia Wren . Washington Post
David Siegel . Connection
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts
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