Here’s how you know you’re in a Martin McDonagh comedy: Father Welsh (Chris Stezin), Leenane Village’s dipsomaniacal priest, wanders into the fractious home of the Connor brothers to announce “Tom Hallan killed himself” — and the audience bursts out in laughter.
Yes, the name of the play being given such a spirited production at Keegan Theatre is The Lonesome West, but McDonagh’s Leenane seems to be located somewhere between the fifth and sixth circles of Dante’s Inferno, and the brothers Connor make Cain and Abel look like they came out of “the Brady Bunch”. Connor (Matthew J. Keenan) is a greasy-haired dirtball prone to fits of manic violence on little provocation. The venal Valene (Bradley Foster Smith) is a miser who has obtained (through a shocking stratagem) ownership and tenuous control of the entire household.
And what a household! There are two wing chairs, scratched up and disemboweled to the degree that you will think that the household pet is a leopard; a bare table with a couple of chairs, a long rifle mounted over the fireplace, and so many religious pictures and figurines (along with a picture of Valene’s dead dog) that if you fired that rifle it would be impossible to miss one of them. (Chekhov’s famous rule is that if you see a gun on the fireplace in Act I it must be fired by Act III, but McDonagh exceeds those requirements by a comfortable margin). The household treasure is a stove, complete with oven, which Valene marks with a masking-tape V to assure that Coleman will never use it. For unknown reasons, the business end of a pitchfork sticks out of one of the walls. (Keenan is responsible for the set, which in addition to being beautifully designed is admirably sturdy.)
Although it will be hard to recognize, McDonagh structures The Lonesome West like a sitcom. Coleman and Valene will be in the midst of one of their murderous disputes — over potato chips, or the stove, or the figurines, or over a bottle of Poteen (a raw Irish whiskey, like moonshine), or over a recent killing (Casey Kaleba does the superb fight choreography) — when Father Welsh will wander in, awash with a new crisis in faith, and deflect the conflict. Or Girleen (Sarah Chapin) will march in, with a fresh supply of Poteen available for ready cash. The relationship between Coleman and Valene is full of past slights and present affronts, and no deflection, even one involving booze, is sufficient to long deter them.
The Lonesome West is at bottom a character study, and Keenan and Smith create two characters so delicious in their detestability that you will be a long time forgetting them. It is possible to play Coleman and Valene more sympathetically, but Director Mark A. Rhea’s choice was otherwise, and he and his actors make it work. Keenan is wonderfully explosive and unpredictable as Coleman; to talk to him, you will think, must be like petting a pit bull. And Smith’s Valene is a marvel: self-involved and self-congratulatory at every turn, he is a human sneer.
The Lonesome West
closes August 27, 2016
Details and tickets
If you missed Kate Robards’ excellent Ain’t That Rich at the Fringe Festival, McDonagh makes her point over again with Valene: the purpose of money is not to enjoy the things you can do with it, it is to show how much better you are than anybody else. Valene is thus certain that his immense collection of religious figurines will purchase his ticket to heaven, where he in any event deserves to be, after the passage of a great deal of time.
We normally seek protagonists for whom we have a rooting interest, but the Coleman and Valeen that Keenan and Smith put on stage are wholly without redeeming virtue, and we watch them, as we watch certain Tracy Letts characters and candidates for public office, in order to see what imaginative affront to human decency they will do next. In this production, they do not disappoint.
This puts the responsibility for engaging us on Stezin’s Father Welsh and Chapin’s Girleen, and they discharge this responsibility more or less successfully. Father Welsh is a good man, though not a strong one, and the letter he writes to Connor and Valene, urging them to act like human beings, is a moving one (albeit a little longer than I’d like). Girleen, whose world-facing face is cheerful, bluff, and a little rough, has some emotional secrets, and Chapin does an excellent job of showing them to us while her oblivious compatriots peer past them. Chapin did fine work on local stages before going off to college. We can only hope that she will return to DC after she finishes getting her theater degree from Yale.
McDonagh’s best work — I’m thinking here of The Lieutenant of Inishmore in particular — contains a powerful through line that moves the action forward. The Lonesome West doesn’t have that; its characters are more inert, just like real people. But Keegan’s production, which clocks in at two hours twenty, nonetheless provides its own momentum. You may grow terrified of these people, but you will not grow tired of them.
The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh . Directed by Mark Rhea, assisted by Josh Sticklin . Featuring Matthew J. Keenan (who also did the set design), Chris Stezin, Bradley Foster Smith and Sarah Chapin . Lighting design: Colin Dieck . Costume design: Erin Nugent . Sound design: Tony Angelini . Hair and makeup design: Craig Miller . Set dressing and properties: Carol H. Baker . Fight choreography: Casey Kaleba . Stage Manager: Alexis J. Hartwick . Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.