On the tiny, isolated island of Inishmaan, off the western coast of Ireland, either there is something peculiar in the water or the residents are genetically predisposed to quirkiness.
Either way, few ever escape from their homeland. But at least Billy Claven, the so-called Cripple of Inishmaan, a 17-year-old orphan with a body mangled since birth, can dream of leaving his insular, narrow-minded village behind and hobbling out into the world.
Billy and his fellow “fecking” Irish characters are the handiwork of twisted Martin McDonagh, an exceptional and exceptionally dark storyteller, known for such acclaimed stage works as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman, as well as being the filmmaker of the amusing assassins’ yarn, In Bruges. The Cripple of Inishmaan is more overtly comic than most of his work, but never doubt that there are outbursts of violence lurking just around the corner.
The play has a plot, but it is chiefly a character study. How could it not be when you have such rich material as the Osbourne sisters, a couple of spinster sisters who run the general store, as in generally out of stock. But from the way they banter, it seems clear that their true calling is stand-up comedy.
In any event, Eileen (Elizabeth Dimon) busies herself shelving the one item they have in oversupply – canned peas – while Kate (Laura Turnbull) is often preoccupied with talking to stones. They took in Billy (Adam Petherbridge) as a wee bairn when he was orphaned by his parents’ boating mishap. Dear old biddies, except when their nasty streak surfaces.
Testing Eileen’s patience is common sense-challenged Bartley McCormick (Wesley Slade), whose indecision over a penny candy purchase would drive anyone to homicide. His sister Helen (Adelind Horan), opinionated and randy, has caught Billy’s eye and she teases him mercilessly. Perhaps McDonagh’s most whimsical creation here is Johnnypateenmike O’Dougal (Colin McPhillamy), the self-appointed town crier, always eager to impart an item of news or at least a juicy tidbit of gossip. And when not filling in anyone who will listen, he busies himself by filling his 90-year-old mum (Harriet Oser) with liquor, in the hope that it will help her die quicker.
The chances of anyone’s life changing much seems slim, until Johnnypateenmike proclaims that a Hollywood bloke has arrived on nearby Inishmore island, intent on making a documentary, and he needs extras for authentic atmosphere. As unlikely as it sounds, Billy recognizes this as his chance to get beyond his miserable existence and perhaps parlay it into a movie career in the United States. And were The Cripple of Inishmaan a Spielberg movie, that is exactly what would happen. Be assured that McDonagh has no such sentimental outcome in mind.
Just getting to Inishmore would be challenge enough for Billy, for he is still traumatized by his parents’ nautical demise. But he steels himself for the voyage and talks seemingly benign boatman Babbybobby Bennett (Jim Ballard) into giving him passage to the movie site.
Director J. Barry Lewis knits these wild and woolly characters into an entertaining whole, teetering on the edge of caricature without ever falling into that trap. He is fortunate to have Petherbridge at the center of the production, anchoring the fable-like tale, providing an ample source of audience empathy. Just on the physical level – a withered right hand and a foot twisted at right angles to the other – it is an awesome performance. Most of the town looks down on the lad, thoughtlessly calling him “Cripple Billy,” but he is the calm core around which the true cripples swirl.
We have become used to first-rate design at Dramaworks, but Victor Becker’s sets exceeds expectations, as the intricate array of walls glide about between scenes, forming new Inishmaan locales. Paul Black’s lighting presages the moody comedy and two-time Tony winner Franne Lee costumes the cast cleverly to emphasize its eccentricities.
And yet the more time we spend with these eccentric souls, the less exotic they seem. That is McDonagh’s particular genius.
THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through June 4. $66. 561-514-4042.