MARTIN McDONAGH’S FEVER DREAM OF A PLAY
by Harvey Perr
published January 9, 2009
The Cripple of Inishmaan
now playing Off Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company
through March 1
Oh, they exist all right, those fabled Aran Islands, with their rugged terrains surrounded by what, in rough
weather, can be a terrifying Galway Bay, but Inishmaan and Inishmore, as real as they are, exist as much in the fever brain of Martin
McDonagh, who has placed them on a map, along with Inisheer, Leenane and Connemara, outside of Ireland: the map of contemporary theater.
And even though McDonagh was born in England (just as John Ford - whose Inishfree’s rolling green meadows are forever a part of The Quiet Man rather than a part any true Irish landscape - was born in Maine), the Ireland he has
created for the stage is as authentic as it is dedicated to the mythologies the great Irish dramatists have always been bent on creating.
Do we take him as seriously as we do John Millington Synge? Or do we see him as an outsider hurling invective at the shenanigans of those
“stage Irish?” Is he having fun with the land of the leprechauns, where ghosts walk hand in hand with the living inhabitants, or is he
looking bitterly and sadly at their peculiar and peculiarly fascinating ways?
When The Cripple of Inishmaan first made its way to
New York in an often misguided and somewhat troublesome production a decade ago at the Public Theater, it seemed, even then, to be a wonderful
piece of blarney. But it has taken Garry Hynes, the great director of the Druid Theatre Company, in its current incarnation at the Atlantic
Theater Company, to bring the play to artistic fruition, to release its mockery and its daffiness and, at the same time, to reveal its haunted
heart. There is no funnier or more heartbreaking play in town at the moment. Ms. Hynes knows her Irish theater and she knows exactly what
McDonagh is laughing at, and she also knows that McDonagh knows that what cannot be taken away from
the Irish is their brooding sense of the tragic.
The play takes place in 1934 on the island of Inishmaan, and its conceit is that its villagers are in pursuit of
taking part in the filming of Robert Flaherty’s classic Man of Aran, whose crews are shooting at
a neighboring island. They pooh-pooh the idea of Cripple Billy - whose tortured body will surely remind older theatergoers of the way in
which John Merrick’s body was twisted out of shape by Philip Anglim in the original production of The
Elephant Man – going with them. But, of course, it is Cripple Billy who gets sent off to Hollywood, complete with contract. And, of
course again, at just the time when a screening of the finished Man of Aran is shown at the local
church, Cripple Billy is possibly dying in a Hollywood hotel, a rotting piece of human decay in the center of the hotel’s flashing lights.
But The Cripple of Inishmaan has its happy ending. Or does it? At least, Cripple Billy returns to
He returns to the original stew of thwarted lives and inherent violence that he left behind.
There’s Kate and Eileen, who have raised Cripple Billy (after the mysterious death of his parents), running the
grocery whose entire stock seems to be made up of tinned peas and fresh eggs, most of which are more likely to be broken on the head of
Bartley by his sister, the slut, Helen, than eaten by anybody in town. There’s Johnny PateenMike, who sells gossip in trade for anything he
can get, and who is anxiously anticipating the imminent death of his bedridden mother, Mammy, whose advanced state of alcoholism would have
killed anyone else ages ago, and who, incidentally, drinks because she instinctively knows her son is trying to kill her. And there’s Babby
Bobby, the man who brings Cripple Billy to the filming when nobody else will take him, and who hides, beneath his gentle exterior, a
storehouse of violent subterranean emotions. A lively cast of characters, indeed, to be stranded on an island with, particularly when it’s
BabbyBobby who’s got the only lifeboat!
The marvelous cast Ms. Hynes has assembled create an ensemble that should be envied by every
other theater company around (and this in a season of memorable ensemble performances). What makes each characterization so vibrant is how
fully their innate absurdity is projected while the pitiable aspects of their humanity keep peering through. I mention them all here:
Dearbhla Molloy’s open-faced Eileen, forever hiding her favorite candies and forever searching for them; David Pearse’s worm-eaten Johnny
PateenMike, who can’t make a move that doesn’t bring suspicion upon him but who, in fact, simply can’t make a move; Laurence Kinlan’s
amiable, slightly brutish buffoon of a Bartley; Kerry Condon’s saucily indelicate Helen; Andrew Connolly’s hearty, handsome and profoundly
secretive Babby Bobby; Patricia O’Connell’s dry Mammy, happily guzzling her gin while life cheerily passes her by; John C. Vennema’s doctor,
the play’s voice of reason (which may be one of the reasons why we remember least of all what it is he says); Aaron Monaghan’s Cripple
Billy, an astonishing portrait of coughing human anguish and wary hopefulness inside a tormented physicality that captures incisively the
dueling nature of McDonagh’s play. As for Marie Mullen as Kate, Eileen’s crabbed but sensible sister, I have come to the conclusion, after
seeing her in The Beauty Queen of Leenane and in the rich variety of characters she played in
Druid/Synge and now, in her impeccable playing of this character, that she is one of the world’s
greatest living actresses. To be in the potent presence of her company is reason enough to drop everything and run off to see The Cripple of Inishmaan.
It is clear that even if Martin McDonagh is having mercilessly mean fun
with the Irish character and with the deliciously poetic idiosyncrasies of Irish language, he also has a sweeping compassion for the Irish
soul, and Garry Hynes, his perfect collaborator, understands, with a Beckettian sense of truth, that the vaudeville house stands right next
door to the cemetery.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com