by Hedy Weiss
March 17, 2011
Put the words of an Irish playwright (and in this case he is Martin McDonagh), into the mouths of his most gifted thespian brethren (the uncannily brilliant actors of the Druid Theatre Company of Galway, Ireland, and their masterful director, Garry Hynes), and a certain thrilling magic is sure to happen. Proof of this can now be found at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where Druid is presenting McDonagh's 1996 work, "The Cripple of Inishmaan," in one of those rare and enchanted productions that will live in the memory of all who see it for years to come.
And yes, it definitely has something to do with the music and the tragicomic mischief of McDonagh's language, and how it rolls off the tongues of those who know its rhythms and its intonations, and the unique perturbations of the world out of which this play comes. It has something to do with the DNA, too — with the psychological and historical inheritance that is part of being Irish, with the blood knowledge of the tensions in the Anglo-Irish relationship, with the inferiority complex of a nation that was long dominated yet fiercely individual. It also has something to do with the ear, and with the tongue, and with the very particular tuning that has made the work of such writers as Sean O'Casey, Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel and now, their irreverent and naughty "child," McDonagh, so exceptional.
"The Cripple of Inishmaan" may very well be McDonagh's finest play, or at least this Druid production makes you believe it is. Set in 1934, on a little island off the west coast of Ireland, it spins off a real event — the filming by American director Robert Flaherty of what would be his landmark (if somewhat fictionalized) documentary about the elemental lives of the fishermen, farmers and others who inhabited such remote islands.
But McDonagh, who has written scenes of dizzying perfection in this play, turns that event into a story about great human yearning and inescapable mortality. Mixing the very highest form of black comedy with blunt cruelty and, finally, with overwhelming pathos, he captures a certain aspect of Ireland's fate through the lives of his nine emblematic characters.
At the center of the story is Billy Claven (the utterly beguiling Tadhg Murphy), a young fellow with a warped right hand and club foot, whose intelligence and sensitivity set him apart in a town where tedium, isolation and a sense of dead-endedness tend to turn ordinary people into eccentrics who talk to cows and stones, or into lonely monsters who resort to extreme violence.
An orphan in the care of his two aunties (hilarious, Beckettian work by Dearbhla Molloy and Ingrid Craigie), Billy becomes hellbent on "auditioning" for Flaherty, and eventually he even gets to America for a brief burst of freedom.
But it is character, language and behavior, far more than plot, that drives this play. And though McDonagh can sometimes push things to the edge of absurdity, the Druid actors spin everything he gives them into pure gold.
Dermot Crowley's peerless performance as JohnnyPateenMike, the bringer of news and gossip, is a gem, with his sadistic relationship to his ancient and happily alcoholic mother (a priceless performance by Nancy E. Carroll) lifting cliche into a giddy realm all its own. And then there are the twisted siblings, candy-craving Bartley (Laurence Kinlan, a wonderfully dim-witted clown), and his sex-crazed and sadistic sister, Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne will knock your socks off), who is the wormy apple of Billy's damaged eye.
Liam Carney brings a similarly warped mix of softheartedness and beastliness to the role of boatman BabbyBobby,with Paul Vincent O'Connor deftly playing the town's relatively "normal" doctor.
Of course Billy, "the cripple," and his fellow citizens, are meant to be the embodiment of Ireland. But as we are reminded by McDonagh, and by the sheer witchcraft of these Druid actors, there is a heart and soul and ferocity in all of them that is downright indomitable.