“You have to soar to fill your soul, but your family is what keeps you grounded,” writes first-time director Dave Carter in the playbill for The Cripple of Inishmaan. That’s the point of Colonial Players’ season opener, a well-crafted comic piece that dips into the reality of sadness and cruelty without turning maudlin.
Martin McDonagh’s play debuted in 1996 in London and off Broadway in 1998. The wisp of a plot focuses on an American coming to Inishmore, near the island of Inishmaan, to make a film about the locals, who are abuzz.
Bright performances abound in this dark comedy.
Teenaged orphan Billy Claven (Jack Leitess), known as Cripple Billy, decides that his fate — and his escape from the cruelties of the island — lies in Hollywood, so he shoves off to join the movies. His two aunts (Mary MacLeod and Carol Cohen) worry about their charge, who spends much too much time reading books and staring at cows. Friend Bartley McCormick (Drew Sharpe) tries his best to understand, and Bartley’s egg-flinging, rough-edged sister Helen (Natasha Joyce) tries to be as cruel as possible.
Babbybobby Bennett (Scott Nichols), the rough-hewn widower facing his own demons, manages the transit off the island. Tying things all together is the theatrical town gossip Johnnypateenmike (Edd Miller), whose thirst for attention is fed by his ability to barter news for goods. Lisa KB Rath as Johnny’s elderly sot of a mother and Danny Brooks as Doctor McSharry also shine in smaller supporting roles.
The star of this production is not one particular character over another, but rather the vast undercurrents of love that ebb and flow through each and among them all together. Thence rises the heartfelt laughter, saving what could have been too dark a comedy. Cripple Billy’s friends and neighbors are his family, and Cripple Billy takes as good as he gets when it comes to understanding and coping with his disability. The directness with which his condition is treated gives us some very lovely, often laugh-out-loud, comic moments. From the aunts’ hand-wringing angst over Billy’s lack of prospects and Helen’s addiction to cursing and kissing, to Bartley’s denseness and Johnnypateenmike’s hilariously childlike need to be first to tell, this cast makes McDonagh’s characters come to life brightly, hilariously and sincerely.
It’s not a perfect show, to be sure. In several scenes the pacing needs to be picked up (opening night was two hours and 40 minutes, a bit long for a two-act non-musical). Several scenes are awkwardly staged so that too much of the audience in the round is blocked from the action. In a few spots, the actors’ volume must be turned up.
On a more positive note, director Carter and his actors take care to ensure the Irish accents are of the less-is-more variety, consistent enough that we know we’re in the Aran Islands, but not so overdone that we lose what’s being said.
What’s being said is beautiful, funny and often heart-wrenching. The Cripple of Inishmaan rides an undercurrent of love that draws us in, gives us good, hearty laughs and soars into our hearts.
Playing thru Oct. 1: Th-Sa8pm, Su 2pm, plus Sept. 18 7:30pm, Colonial Players Theatre, East St., Annapolis; $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373.
Stage manager: Ernie Morton. Costume designer: Christina McAlpine. Set designer: Terry Averill. Lighting designer: Shirley Panek. Sound designer: Michelle Bruno. Dialect coach: Nancy Krebs.