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A CurtainUp Review
The Cripple Of Inishmaan
By Elyse Sommer
Martin McDonagh's The Cripple Of Inishmaan is as funny and sad and exhilarating a new play as I've seen for some time. Director Jerry Zaks has fortunately been able to bring the one member of the London cast who comes closest to being irreplaceable --Ruaidhri (Roa-ree) Conroy as the title character "cripple" Billy. Conroy and his new supporting cast are more than deserving of the curtain calls they had to answer at the last preview performances I attended.
As in Queen of Leenane ( Link at end ) Mr. McDonagh once again proves himself an adept story teller, with a keen eye and ear for capturing both the humor and sadness of people trapped in lives devoid of social or cultural stimulus or economic advantages. Unlike :Leenane's melodramatic structure and characters whose desperation turns dark and loathsome, The Cripple of Inishmaan links its story to a real event -- the making of the historic documentary Man of Aran by Robert Flaherty (still available as a video classic) -- and draws its characters in a broader and more colorful palette. While hardly filled with the milk of human kindness the citizens of Inishmaan are nevertheless sympathetic, and their interactions so hilarious that you tend to forget the underlying desperation even in the title character's flight away from their petty feuds and thoughtless cruelty.
The setting of Cripple is a three-mile long rocky stretch of land known as the Island of Inishmaan off the Western Coast of Ireland. The time frame is circa 1934 and the trigger event to jolt the Inishmaaners out of their relentlessly uneventful existence is the arrival of a Hollywood director who finds this remote coastal region interesting enough to make a film. The movie provides the island's official gossip monger, Johnnypateenmike (Donal Donelly), with a real scoop after years of having to make do with trivial squabbles and misbehavior. The island's young people -- Slippy Helen (Aisling O'Neill) and her brother Bartley (Christopher Fitzgerald) -- are determined to be part of the action. And so is eighteen-year-old Cripple Billy. For him a job in the film is his one chance to escape the place where everyone, even his well-intentioned "auntie" Kate (Elizabeth Franz) and "auntie" Eileen (Roberta Maxwell) see nothing wrong in appending the word cripple to his name because they have no idea that to him they are as crippled inside as his painfully misshapen body. (In fact, the title would work well with an "s" added to "cripple").
As we follow Billy's heartbreakingly funny odyssey and its effect on the other islanders McDonagh's use of Man of Aran reveals itself to be more than a nifty and historically interesting plot device. What it does is to deftly juxtapose reality and make-believe.
You see, the film was controversial because what people saw was not quite as accurate as Flaherty would have them believe, since some events were manufactured to create a slice of life more cinematically powerful than the real thing. In the same way McDonagh's characters are not averse to re-arranging facts. For example, Billy finds his own facts to persuade Babbybobby (Michael Gaston) to take him on his boat, even though "cripples are bad luck" to Inishmore where the film is being cast. Johnnypateenmike's retelling of the "real" story of how Billy's parents drowned takes Billy's feelings into account.
What we have then is the unseen film maker in search of a real world that he rearranges to fit his image of an idyllic coastal world -- and the real occupants of that world for whom Hollywood and its products represent a lifeline out of their less than idyllic existence.
Ruaidhri Conroy, as already mentioned, is totally captivating as the cripple boy who hungers for a girl's kiss and the truth about the parents he never knew. The way he manages to transform himself into the tortured and pretzel-bent Billy is a marvel of acting. The other Inishmaaners we meet are a daft mixture of pragmatism and superstition, their actions full of casual (but unintended) cruelties and, surprisingly for this playwright, kindnesses.
First on stage are the two widowed general store owners whose opening interchange immediately sends the audience into gales of laughter. Elizabeth Franz's slightly other worldly and naive Kate perfectly balances Roberta Maxwell's crustier Eileen. Donal Donnelly is delightfully droll as the boring and bored town crier who consistently and deliberately disregards the doctor's (Peter Maloney) order to keep alcohol out of his old Mammy' (Eileen Brennan) reach. The rest of the players, despite less than authentic Irish accents, bring enough of the broad humor emphasized by director Zaks to the evening's proceedings. The most outrageously amusing member of the motley crew of eight is Aisling O'Neill as "slippy Helen" a young woman Cripple Billy yearns for -- understandably so since underneath her rough and tough manner and tendency to break eggs (the cause for the nickname) she is as filled with insecurity and yearning as Billy. The scene where the entire ensemble sits on a long bench watching the now finished film is one of the evening's comic highlights. The comments of the Inishmaaners are priceless and Sage Marie Carter's scrim-projection to create a local theater adds a terrific scenic touch.
This being an Irish story teller's account of the events triggered by the Flaherty film, you can expect a few surprises along the way. There's also Tony Walton's somewhat too clunky roll-around set to lend atmosphere -- large and rocky both indoors and out, so that we never forget that we are on the desolate and rocky Irish coast. Ann Roth's costumes give just the right texture and color of Irish homespun to the rock-gray setting.
As those of you who read my review of The Beauty Queen of Leenane know (See link at end), I liked it but not unreservedly. While I tend to prefer serious plays to comedies (and sophisticated comedies over those in which the humor tends to be so broad as to almost beg the adjective cartoonish), I think Cripple is the better of the two. It allows you to see the bleeding hearts beneath all its blarney and lends itself to more (a la Zaks) or less (a la Nicholas Hytner in London) broad-humored interpretation. What's more, now that I've seen both plays, I have a greater appreciation of this playwright's talents than I did after seeing the much darker-edged middle play of the Leenane trilogy. With that first play soon to transfer to Broadway from it's sold-out run at the Atlantic Theater, you too can take advantage of the opportunity to see both of this young playwright's most successful works.
Interestingly, Eugene O'Neill, our own Irish-American master playwright, who also worked on play cycles, is currently represented on the New York stage with revivals of two plays from his famous family trilogy -- the first, Ah, Wilderness, often considered the sunny forerunner of the second, Long Day's Journey Into Night. -- (the last of this trilogy is slated for a revival at the Berkshire Theatre Festival this summer). While Cripple takes a more benign view of humanity than Leenane does, I wouldn't call it a sunny play as much as a darkly funny one. If you have the time and the sitzfleisch, I would recommend seeing the revivals as well as these interesting new plays.. Links to Other Plays Mentioned
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Long Day's Journey Into Night
Another Irish story teller' play currently off-Broadway: Conor McPherson's St. Nicholas
April 23, 1998 Addendum to the above review: Finton O'Toole is an Irishman who's written several books about his homeland. In a 5/04/98 article in The New Yorker entitled "The Meaning of Union" and subtitled taking the trouble out of the troubles he sheds some additional light on the egg-breaking madness of the savage Irish girl "Cripple" Billy fancies. To make his point he uses the scene in which Helen and her brother play England Ireland (he being Ireland) and she breaking an egg over his head as soon as he closes his eyes. When he objects, she tells him "There'll be worse casualties than eggy hair before Ireland's a nation once again." This bit of daffyness according to O'Toole "is a perfectly accurate picture of an Irish nationalist" convinced the English will smash the Irish on the head over and over again because "that's what the English do." As O'Toole explains, it's also a parody by a young English playwright of Irish parentage who like most of his generation sees the old-fashioned nationalist view of Irish-English relations as something laughable.