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Martin McDonagh Entertainingly Dissects Small Town Life In 'The Cripple of Inishmaan'

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Tadhg Murphy and Clare Dunne in "The Cripple of Inishmaan" (Photo by Craig Schwartz.)
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Largely, the world that Martin McDonagh writes about is one of cruelty and dark humor fitfully illuminated by explosions of sudden violence, from the steady accumulation of hatefulness in The Beauty Queen of Leenane to the poor bastard hung upside down from a cord and tortured in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. There is no lack of unkindness and mockery in his earlier play The Cripple of Inishmaan, but it’s notable in McDonagh’s body of work for the characters’ occasional decency and the quiet but undeniable presence of a glimmer of hope.

The new touring company co-production from the Irish Druid theatre troupe and the New York-based Atlantic Theatre Company playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre is about pitch-perfect, a tart slice of 1934 rural Ireland.

Sisters Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy) and Kate (Ingrid Craigie) run a country shop on the island of Inishmaan, a place so isolated that local blowhard JohnnyPateenMike (Dermot Crowley) can supplement his living nicely by just passing on whatever news stories he’s heard. “Cripple” Billy (Tadhg Murphy), raised by Eileen and Kate after both of his parents drowned, prefers reading to listening to gossip, and he secretly pines for tough girl Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne). Helen, however, would rather mock Billy for his disabled arm and leg. One piece of news gets Billy’s interest finally—an American documentary crew is filming on a neighboring island—and he decides to try out for the film, desperate to change his life.

Murphy is moving as the long-suffering Billy, not completely unselfish but certainly more sinned against than sinning. Molloy excels as Eileen, the tougher of the two sisters, showing that her easy taunting of JohnnyPateenMike can disappear upon an instant to become obsequiousness when he has information she needs. Craigie is quite amusing as the less balanced Kate, getting full comic value from her many variations on the line “Not a word.” Crowley is wonderfully peevish as the ever grasping JohnnyPateenMike, making the sisters jump through metaphorical hoops for the right to give him free eggs, and Nancy E. Carroll steals the show as his drunken elderly mother. Dunne is deliciously mean as Helen, punching and kicking anyone as the mood takes her, and Laurence Kinlan is delightful as her well-meaning but somewhat dim brother Bartley.

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Director Garry Hynes paces the show expertly, letting the garrulous citizens of Inishmaan have their say without ever becoming tedious, and gets such detailed work from her cast that you feel like you’re really seeing a town instead of a few miscellaneous characters. McDonagh’s hand is sure in this work, ranging from tragedy to hilarity, his only misstep the play’s conclusion, which feels needlessly prolonged. Francis O’Connor’s sets and costumes may not be inaccurate, but they seem a trifle spare.

The Cripple of Inishmaan runs at through May 1st at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
Tickets $20-45 via (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org