Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan, playing through March 1 at Phoenix Theatre, is a hilarious and heartbreaking tale of life on a small Irish island in 1934.
A recurring line is “Ireland must not be so bad if so-and-so wants to come here.” The playwright makes fun of those clueless feckers who would romanticize the Emerald Isles, as well as the insensitive feckers that live there. I think some of the Irish culture digs went over my head, but I appreciated those at everything else from unethical journalists to mean girls. Usually it's depressing to be reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same, but McDonagh somehow makes us glad to be included in the litany. Life sucks and all of us are crippled in one way or another but still, it’s life.
The consistently surprising plot revolves around the visit of a Hollywood filmmaker to a nearby island. The title character, known as Cripple Billy because of his physical deformities, sees the film as an opportunity to escape, or at least change, the relentless harshness of his daily life. No one but Billy takes his yearning to be in the movie seriously, and he takes steps, including overcoming his fear of the sea, to make it happen.
Each of the nine characters in Billy’s story is complex and important — and each of the nine actors, under the direction of Bryan Fonseca, is outstanding. Phoenix newcomer Nathan Robbins embodies Billy’s physical deformities believably but more importantly gives him just the right mix of old soul emotional fatigue and endearing boyishness. Phoenix veterans Deborah Sargent (Kate) and Gayle Steigerwald (Eileen) play two friends that run the island’s general store and serve as Billy’s dear, whacky aunties.
Rob Johansen plays Johnypateenmike, a gossip that takes his role as newsman seriously. He charges a breakfast’s worth of food for telling three pieces of news. Drawing out the telling of the news is as delicious to him as the food. He may or may not share the food with his drunken Mammy (Gigi Jennewein), who is also a hoot, and they or may not cooperate with calm Doctor McSharry (Paul Collier Hansen).
Dialect coach Ryan O’Shea plays Helen, a bored and beautiful young woman that enjoys testing her feminine arsenal on everyone from her priest to her employer when she’s not beating up her earnestly naive brother Bartley (Tyler Ostrander) Michael Hosp plays deep and dour boatman Babbybobby.
Beyond the acting and directing, other pleasures include the rich accents and the Yoda-like language, the toe-tapper music and the quirky wigs, the exotic sweeties and the everyday eggs, and more. I took off half a star because, although I loved the sets and lighting for the general store and the Hollywood rooming house, the seaside set didn’t work for me. Every time we went there, the odd, polka-dotted background distracted me from the story. It didn’t seem to fit. But this is just a quibble in what was a very satisfying experience overall.