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A CurtainUp Review
A Skull In Connemara
By Elyse Sommer
The first and finest of McDonagh's Leenane trilogy, The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (see link), arrived first in 1998 -- moving from Off-Broadway to Broadway after creating a major stir. The Lonesome West (see link), which chronologically is the last of the Leenane plays, went right to Broadway a year later. Both were directed by Dublin's Gary Hynes.
Now, with A Skull at Connemara, the middle play, directed with considerable flair by an American, Gordon Edelstein, New York audiences have had a chance to become accustomed to McDonagh's Irish Gothic types and the playwright's often violent and goofy black humor and full of "fecking" dialogue. His macabre characters who, as Father Walsh put it in The Lonesome West, "defy God's jurisdiction," are perhaps best appreciated when considered as part of the trilogy's whole fabric — their almost look-alike spartan houses, the violence never far from the Irish blarney surface, the influence of film, television and sports personalities on the characters' dreams. (Walsh is an off-stage character in Skull) Not, that you can't enjoy Skull without having seen the other two plays. In fact, those paying their first visit to Leenane will avoid the McDonagh follower's sense of overfamiliarity with his village "ijits."
The plot, an incident would be a more apt term for what transpires, centers on quite literally digging into a mystery. The mystery is whether Mick Dowd's (Kevin Tighe) wife Oona died when he was drunk at the wheel or as a result of a deadly blow by Mick. Since Mick is a gravedigger who must exhume the buried bodies every seven years to make room for the next lot, he's now faced with digging up his wife.
To fill us in on all this and to set the scene for the gravedigging to follow, Mick has a visit from the gossipy Maryjohnny Rafferty (Zoaunne Leroy). The two oldsters' visit is interrupted by the entrance of Maryohnny's teenaged grandson Mairtin (Christopher Carley), who's been sent by Father Walsh to assist Mick in his gravedigging chores. Mairtin's choir-boy good looks belie his talent for trouble. The fourth character is Mairtin's brother Thomas (Christopher Evan Welch). As the town policeman, relagated to helping kids cross the road and overseeing the activites at the grave, he seethes with ambitions for more glorified police work -- shades of TV's Quincy.
What happens during that grave digging and back in Mick's house is not likely to leave you with much to think about, but the ghoulish business of the skulls involves some typically hilarious McDonaghesque touches -- including one scene that sends the dust of Leenane's long-gone citizens' bones and skulls flying all over the set and into the first rows of the theater. This modern day Irish Dogpatch comedy succeeds mainly because of its winning cast and spectacular staging.
Kevin Tighe adds just the right touch of poignancy to the widowed grave digger's fierce denial of violence against his wife. Zoaunne LeRoy embodies the Leenaner's grudge-bearing, suspicious nature. Red-headed Christopher Carley is perfection as a representative of Leenane's loutish youth. My own favorite of this foursome is Christopher Evan Welsh -- his dark hair slicked down like a Tango dancer, his lanky body and fierce gaze exuding the possibility of malevolence. All are in full control of the dialect.
David Gallo, whose listing as set designer always promises something special, does not disappoint in the way he wittily creates an upside-down graveyard as the ceiling for his realistically spare kitchen set. Michael Chybowski's lighting adds to the eerieness of the graveyard shenanigans.
As I've said before, Leenane is a place you wouldn't want to visit any more than you'd want to make friends with its residents -- except, of course, on stage.
LINKS TO OTHER MARTIN MCDONAGH PLAYS
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
The Lonesome West
The Cripple of Inishmaan not a Leenane play, but in this critic's opinion, as good, if not better than The Beauty Queen