“Ireland musn’t be such a bad place.” This phrase, part of the repetitious dialogue that characterizes much of Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” is like the play itself — meant to be both ironic and taken at face value. In this meaty black comedy about a particular area of the world and a particular type of people, the nature of humanity is what ultimately emerges. Set on a remote group of islands off the coast of Ireland in 1934, the story represents an area of the nation that is marked for its remoteness and removal from Western culture. This feeling of isolation, excellently conveyed through the stage design of Elizabeth Bacon ’04, pervades the characters themselves, and provides a view into their sometimes harrowing courses of action.
The story centers on young crippled Billy (Peter Cellini ’05), a boy on the Irish island of Inishmaan who lives with his two surrogate aunts, Kate (Elizabeth Meriwether ’04) and Eileen (Jessie Wiener ’05). Abandoned after his parents drowned under mysterious circumstances, Billy is the town curiosity who bears the brunt of criticism from its citizens. When rumors of a Hollywood film being made on the neighboring island are spread by the town gossip Johnnypateenmike (Ian Lowe ’04), Billy is determined to audition for a role in the film, despite the taunting of bully Helen (Zoe Kazan ’05) and her endearingly cowardly brother Bartley (Christopher Grobe ’05). Billy manages to convince boatman Babbybobby (Satya Bhabha ’06) to allow him passage by faking a tuberculosis diagnosis, the same disease which killed Babbybobby’s wife. Of course, Billy is chosen by the Hollywood producers to go to California for a screen test, and leaves those behind in Inishmaan with troubling rumors about his health and possible death.
Director Cecilia Morelli ’04 excellently navigates the sometimes tenuous line between the comedic and the dramatic, especially when dealing with such subject matter as human suffering in its purest form. The show, although lengthy in time, moves at a brusque pace that works well for its textually driven action. As with any play requiring the use of accents, there is some variation among characters, but for the most part solid grasp of ethnic dialect. More importantly, the ensemble feeling of the play is impressive. There are not large gaps between funny lines, nor is there a single standout role; the play flows seamlessly from one scene to the next.
As the tragic protagonist of the narrative, Cellini portrays Billy as the soft yin to the harsh yang of Inishmaan. A kind-hearted young man who would rather look at cows than hurl insults, Billy dreams of leaving his Irish home. However, once in America, he realizes how much the people he left behind mean to him. And he didn’t happen to get the part for the Hollywood screen test, but that’s a minor detail. Cellini is a sincere and earnest Billy, whose affection for his kooky aunts and for the masochistic Helen masks the forthrightness that lets him escape their judgment for a brief period.
As Billy’s non-relative caretakers, Meriwether and Wiener are a source of comic relief. Along with Lowe’s Johnnypateenmike, they form a trio that represents the backwards ways of Inishmaan along with its surprisingly touching inhabitants. Meriwether in particular, whose mental state includes conversation with inanimate objects, has impeccable comedic timing and delivers some of the best elements of physical comedy in the play.
As the ball-busting, egg-crate carrying Helen, Kazan is a perfect foil to the sweet and simple Billy. Whether throwing colorful adjectives or raw eggs, her battles with Grobe are some of the funniest of the show. However, if one is searching for a golden heart beneath the rough exterior, don’t necessarily expect to find it. Kazan stays true to the character and delivers an acidic retort even in the final scenes of sentimental display.
The town gossip monger, portrayed as both hero and villain during the play, is a humorous caricature of the quintessential alcoholic Irishman taken up a notch by Lowe’s crafty wit. He manages to make Johnnypateenmike a character who one loves to hate up until the very end, where he redeems himself by surprisingly protecting the feelings of Billy.
By the end of the show one is not sure whether to laugh or to cry, to feel hopeful or despondent. And perhaps that is McDonagh’s message, told through the perspective of a remote Irish village. In a way, everyone is crippled, but laughing at the world that cripples you makes it a bit more palatable.
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