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“The Cripple of Inishmaan” Stands Tall

by Karen Tortora-Lee on December 19, 2008

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I was lucky enough to snag some deeply discounted tickets to the limited engagement of The Cripple of Inishmaan (by Martin McDonaugh and directed by Garry Hynes) last week.  Let’s face it, when someone offers you discount tickets that cost less than a movie ticket, as long as the plot is a shade better than Death Race you’re already ahead of the game.  So excited was I by the chance to see live theatre for ten dollars, that I barely glanced at the synopsis which informed me that The Cripple of Inishmaan was set in 1934, on an island off the west coast of Ireland, and that it involved events surrounding the time filmmaker Robert Flaherty came to the area to film his movie Man of Aran.  I mean, I’m not really one for blurbs.  Anything loses its zing when boiled down to a few sentences.  I’m more of a jump-in-with-both-feet-and-then-decided-if-I-like-it type of gal, ’specially when, as I’ve mentioned before, the tickets are ten bucks.

Of course, after having seen the play, I’d see it at ten times the price, it was THAT GOOD.  And while the blurb didn’t lie … it certainly didn’t tell the whole truth.

First of all, I find anything that comes at me slathered in a thick Irish brogue delightful — all stemming from my very favorite joke that relies heavily on the use of an Irish accent for the punchline to hit its mark.  (Hint: Seamus, can you use the word “contagious” in a sentence? You take it from there  …).   Secondly, the reason that this cast is so spot-on with their brogues is because the ensemble is transplanted directly from Ireland; part of the Druid Theatre company from Galway that is working in conjunction with the Atlantic Theater company to mount this production.  Atlantic and Druid worked together before to produce McDonaugh’s Tony Award winning The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

So, back to the blurb … Yes, this play is set in 1934, and yes, there’s a movie being filmed just over there on the island across the way, but what this little blurb DOESN’T mention is that everyone who lives their life on this island near, related to, or beside the orphaned “Cripple Billy” (Aaron Monaghan) is just as worthy of having a play named after them.   It could just as easily have been called The Crazy Aunt who Talks to a Stone of Inishmaan, perhaps, or The Brother and Sister Who Have an Unusual Absorption With Eggs and Candy of Inishmaan would also work.  My choice would be The Neighborhood Snoop Who Drops By With Three Pieces of News, Only One of Which is Newsworthy of Inishmaan, but I guess after all that, The Cripple of Inishmaan is probably the pithiest.  Still, while it’s impossible to take your eyes off of Cripple Billy, he’s not necessarily the most compelling character, though he certainly is the most obviously, outwardly injured.

The rest of the characters are crippled as well; it just take a while for those injuries to emerge in a way for the audience to make sense of them.   Take Helen (Kerry Condon), for instance, who can’t get through a conversation without the word fekkin.  She sprinkles it liberally throughout her conversation the way pineapple chucks are sprinkled on a Hawaiian pizza … and yet she’s ready to deck the next guy who doesn’t treat her like a lady.  What she does to her own brother in retaliation for his insults is both messy and hilarious.  Or take Babby Bobby (Andrew Connolly) who is so stripped of emotion after his wife dies of TB that you can’t predict what will come out of him next – a hug or a punch.  Or a long, cold stare.

David Pearse as Johnny Pateen Mike is a scene stealer, but he’s meant to be.  His daily routine is to gather up bits of information, trading them in for eggs, and, when the news is particularly good, hunks of meat and bread.  Half town cryer, half J. Jonah Jameson, he’s a funny little man with funny little ways; he listens at doors when he’s not trying to get his own ailing mother to drink herself to death.  He’s not so much a “character” as he is a CHARACTER … the type every small town has, walking their streets and dispersing their bits of gossip.  At first just a gloss of comic relief (in an already funny play), his life-plot comes to mean a lot more than first implied.  In a way, he’s responsible for the whole fekkin thing.

Billy himself spends his days staring at cows, visiting the doctor, and dreaming of getting out of his little town, as well as out of his designation as Cripple Billy.  “Just Billy!” he implores often enough, as he tries to make his way off the island.  And yes, every now and again someone will call him just Billy … but more often than not, to his face and behind his back, it’s Cripple Billy he is, and Cripple Billy he’ll stay.  It’s not necessarily terrible; his aunties Kate (Marie Mullen) and Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy) love and protect him with fierceness, and the rest of the regulars who patronize his adopted aunties’ store seem to like him well enough.  While no one expects him to rise to greatness, they don’t exactly see him as dispensable either.  When Helen tells Billy he’s not much to look at, it’s with a devilish twinkle in her eye; it may sound harsh to us, but to the two of them it’s just part of their daily interaction.  In Inishmaan, everyone has their role.

The Cripple of Inishmaan is a character driven piece; the plot itself isn’t what’s truly compelling — while it has its ups and downs, and its sudden surprises, (even some ah-ha! moments) the story is simple enough  and won’t leave you pondering the meaning of life; poignant as it is.  What you will be left with, however, is a feeling of affinity for Billy and the townsfolk of Inishmaan.  People who’s biggest dream is to break routine and just have a moment that’s more interesting than the usual one that repeats itself, blandly, over and over.  Whether it’s that one great piece of news, that next great shot of whiskey, that perfect piece of candy, or the chance to be a film star … it’s different … it’s exciting.  And it’s worth it.  So is this play.  Catch it while you can.

The Cripple of Inishmaan is currently playing in previews and opens on December 21, 2008.  The show runs until February 1st, 2009, at the Linda Gross Theater.  Click here to purchase tickets.

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