The drunkard, the gum-flapping gossip, the local girl who’ll kick the bejesus out of any poor sod who lays a hand on her: Martin McDonagh’s bruised-black comedy The Cripple of Inishmaan may be loaded with Irish stereotypes, but his characters are stereotypes with their souls showing through. And the actors in Garry Hynes’s production—a collaboration between the Atlantic Theater Company and Galway’s Druid Theatre Company—stoke that inner glow so skillfully it ultimately catches fire.
Set on a tiny Irish island circa 1934, a lame, bleakly cheerful orphan named Billy (Aaron Monaghan) entertains dreams of stardom—and escape—when a Hollywood film crew sets up nearby. (The documentary they’re shooting, Man of Aran, was actually made.) His life is constrained by the tiny community and by the two dithery maiden aunts who have cared for him since childhood (Dearbhla Molloy and Marie Mullen). Billy does get his chance at stardom, and his adventure gives McDonagh a chance to explore an array of distinctly human foibles and virtues. At times, the playwright works too hard at wresting his characters into symbolic shapes to expose the dark—or the generous—side of humanity. Sometimes characters thrive if you just allow them to be.
But these folks, luckily, are sturdy enough to survive his belabored contortions, and the cast is so well tuned it handles the material’s tonal shifts with ease. David Pearse gives us the funniest, most maddening character, a pigeon-shaped gent named JohnnyPateenMike. Johnny is the “Page Six” of town criers, and when he barges into the island’s households, we, like his neighbors, greet his strutting with both bemusement and dread. Some of his bits of news are weightless; others hit like an anvil. That’s how McDonagh works, too. Yet even as he drops a few too many anvils, he never underestimates the ticklish grace of a feather.