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Life is Cheap

But Talk is Rich in a Small Community on a Hard-Knock Irish Isle

EGGED ON: Megan Anderson cracks wise on Andrew Wassenich.

By John Barry | Posted 1/25/2006

The Cripple of Inishmaan

By Martin McDonagh

At Everyman Theatre through Feb. 26

It’s difficult to decide who deserves the final bow at the end of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan: the pathological gossipmonger Johnnypateenmike, the pair of crazy aunts, or Cripple Billy himself. Some credit should probably go to the door, however, which stands alone on stage right, bereft of a surrounding wall.

This particular door goes above and beyond the call of duty. It gets slammed, peered through, burst open, spoken behind, pounded upon, and gingerly peeked around. But it never stays shut for long. In the peat-covered barren island off the coast of Eire, escape or exclusion is not an option. This small, somewhat crazy band of cohabitants seizes on whatever they can to turn this stagnant tourist haven into a place to live.

With little to do but talk, the characters here have nothing to rely on but their gift of gab, which is uneven at best. Characters in Inishmaan speak as quickly as they think—and they don’t think much of one another.

For the small, skinny guy with a limp and a bad arm, that atmosphere gets a little discouraging. The eponymous 18-year-old Cripple Billy (James Flanagan) is doomed to a life of watching cows and waiting for a woman who has a taste for skinny guys with sunken chests. His love interest is Slippy Helen (Meg Anderson), a manic, abusive, egg-hurling wench. His aunts Eileen (Rosemary Knower) and Kate (Helen Hedman) hold sway over a small store, one of them talking to a rock, and the other one hoarding candy. Johnnypateenmike (Wil Love), meanwhile, comes in and out uninvited, with gossip about neighbors, cats, goats, and Bibles found thrown into the sea.

The story gets sparked by the one worthwhile piece of news that the island’s had in decades. Several Americans have come to neighboring island Inishmore to film a documentary about the area. Billy and Helen wangle a boat ride out to Inishmore, where Billy gets the offer of his dreams: a screen test in Hollywood for a movie about Ireland. He heads off to Los Angeles, and his friends are left seething with envy.

But if you see a predictable melodrama here, don’t pull out handkerchiefs. Playwright McDonagh’s approach to narrative leaves the storytellers as suspect as the playwright. At the risk of spoiling the plot, Cripple leaves you incapable of believing anything you see in the crazy world of Inishmaan.

For McDonagh’s characters, lying isn’t a particular vicious pursuit; it’s just a way to pass the time. You can’t really blame them: When news is rare and far between, each item needs to be stretched, exploited, chewed, and sprinkled over the landscape. By most measures, they’re a bunch of lying, greedy, backstabbing so-called friends, but the determination with which they stretch the truth—and hang it out to dry—is almost heroic.

In a production where characters get pelted with eggs and beaten with rubber hoses, subtlety might appear to be a secondary quality, but it’s not. Director Donald Hicken and the cast successfully negotiate the play’s over-the-top landscape to find its more delicate angles.

As Billy, Flanagan shines. With somewhat abstracted, deadpan irony, Flanagan limps through the play but never takes his eyes off the other characters. He possesses a rare quality, in young actors—the ability to focus his energy on the people around him. It also puts his Jimmy in a bizarre, if fascinating, position: Not only is he the play’s tragic note, but he is also sitting on the sidelines, watching the proceedings with a detached gaze. It’s difficult to determine who to believe at the end: the suffering, innocent orphan or the somewhat jaded intellectual. Billy is both.

Love turns annoying Johnnypateenmike into a character with his own oddball charisma. The stories he has to tell aren’t always that interesting, but his enthusiasm for dispensing news—or even deciding which order to dispense it in—is infectious. By the end, his character achieves a minor transcendence and undergoes a transformation from the town gossip to a master puppeteer. This is an actor’s play, and Everyman’s cast takes it on with a furious enthusiasm. There’s no question that the whole mess is going to crash land, but the audience hangs on for the ride anyway. Even at two hours and 20 minutes, there’s no time for checking watches.

Any stumbles may be caused by the Gaelic accents, which are hard enough for most Irish people to replicate. The cast fills in admirably, but in the back-and-forth exchanges microseconds count—and, occasionally, lines that were supposed to be tossed off get served on a platter. A four- or five-month stay on Inishmaan would probably iron out that wrinkle, but after seeing this play, it’s not a place where anyone would want to hang out. The Cripple of Inishmaan is cheaper than an airplane ticket and, in the Everyman’s sparkling production, much more fun.

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