Palm Beach Dramaworks’ audiences can relax a little after the cerebral workout of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. The West Palm Beach stage company ends its 17th season with the less heady, but perhaps more emotionally involving, dark comedy The Cripple of Inishmaan by acclaimed Irish playwright – and occasional screenwriter – Martin McDonagh.
“This is a narrative story in the Irish tradition, very different than ‘Arcadia,’” says J. Barry Lewis, Dramaworks resident director. “It’s more about style and trying to break into that Irish sensibility of storytelling. The language is written in rhythms that sort of dictate the comedy, and tells you a lot about the characters.”
The characters all live in the remote island village of Inishmaan. At the center of the tale is a sensitive but physically challenged young man named Billy Claven. When he hears that an American filmmaker is coming to the nearby island of Inishmore to shoot a movie, Billy pursues landing a role in it. To him, it could mean a trip to Hollywood, an escape from his bleak, dead-end existence in his native land.
Asked what he responds to in McDonagh’s writing, Adam Petherbridge, who will be playing Billy, says, “For me, it’s that he never lets you get too sentimental. Every time he gets anywhere close, he pulls the rug out from under you and kills somebody. I think that a lesser playwright would take the situation of a young crippled boy in a small Irish town and turn that into a lovely little family drama about two aunties taking care of a little boy and the nice community around them. But he doesn’t do that.”
“In a dark comedy, you’re always searching for the fine line between absurdity and reality. And that’s a real challenge,” emphasizes Lewis. “If they go into absurdity, then they become caricatures and the situation becomes ridiculous. It has to be real stakes.”
McDonagh has been embraced by theatergoers in America and in England for such plays as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman, as well as the film In Bruges, which he wrote and directed. The Irish have been a harder sell. “He’s been accused often of making fun of them,” says Lewis. “He says he hopes that his characters are in honor of traditional Irish storytelling, and not thought of as absurdist.”
According to Petherbridge, who is familiar with most of McDonagh’s works, “I would say this is his masterwork. There’s something about the honesty of the struggle of Billy being saddled with what looks like a physical deformity, what appears to everyone as the issue, but the reality of it is that the physical deformity means that he has to think in a way that people don’t.
“Billy is a guy who is also saddled by his intellect. He’s in a place that is defined by survival. Billy can’t row a boat, he can’t do the things that this island demands. All he’s left with is sitting on a hedgerow, reading a book, watching cows and listening and watching the people. Because the other people on the island have, at the very least, some physical action to occupy their time, they don’t spend nearly as much time observing themselves or other people. I think that that is ultimately what sets him apart.”
For Laura Turnbull, who plays one of the two spinsters who adopted Billy, the play is an emotional roller coaster. “As I’m first reading it, I’m laughing out loud one moment and the next moment I’m thinking, ‘That’s so tragic.’ All the characters came right off the page to me, they just spoke to me,” she says.
She says of her own character, Kate Osborne, she “is doing the best she can, given that she and her sister have never left this island. They’re two old maids. They have tried their hardest to raise this young man that they truly love. But they are limited in their scope of the world, just because they don’t read.
“She’s a worrier, clearly. And she’s quirky. She has her thing about talking to stones. That’s her own meditative coping mechanism that she has. And people think she’s nuts for it. And like everyone else on this island, she is a little bit.”
As he instructed his cast, Lewis cautions the audience to keep in mind how difficult the terrain of Inishmaan is. “This is a harsh environment in which they live, an island of less than 300 people. So they all have created coping mechanisms in which they find a way to survive.”
The community is a crucial part of the play, which could well have been titled The Cripples of Inishmaan. “Yes, it could easily be plural. Absolutely,” agrees Petherbridge. “Billy says at one point, ‘There are plenty of people on this island that are just as crippled as me.’ ”
Whether or not the Irish believe McDonagh has portrayed them in a flattering light, he has captured the national spirit. “They have an incredible literary tradition going back centuries and centuries,” says Lewis. They weren’t at the forefront of anything else, but they always had language, they always had thought, they always had humor. I think he embraces that warmly with his own particular warped sense of humor.”
“I think the audience will relate to so many of these different characters,” concludes Turnbull. “And the humor that’s in it is a real selling point. I think it’s a very funny play.”
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Friday, May 19 through Sunday, June 4. $66. 561-514-4042.